At some point I must have subscribed to an online thing from The Paris Review because I get emails from them at least once per week. I sometimes open them, glance at the title and think, “Oh, this looks cool/interesting/intriguing/etc., I’ll bookmark it,” fully intending to go back to it later in the day. Ha! My Other Bookmarks category on Google is the equivalent of my son’s bedroom—a fabulously and fantastically overwhelming disaster of really interesting things lost to enjoyment because they’re so disorganized. Today, when I opened the email, I found a collection of links to selected articles from 2018, and one caught my attention.
The title “Mothers as Makers of Death” jammed down my manic brain’s pause button. I clicked on it and rather than bookmarking it, scrolled past the disturbing image below the title. The opening paragraphs didn’t satisfy my “What the hell is this about?” but drew me in because they told the story of Claudia Dey’s pregnancy with and delivery of her novel, Heartbreaker (which is now on my ever-growing list of books to read). I thought, “Oh, this is going to be yet another take on the old analogy,”—novelists as pregnant mothers. Novelists word-nurturing their fetal ideas and delivering in publication. Given that I have an unfinished novel of my own languishing in a tattered plastic file box that I use for a footrest at my desk, I read on.
Every so often something, like this strangely titled essay, enkindles so many thoughts and emotions in me I feel compelled to write about it. So here we are with another Jazz riff on someone else’s ideas.
Dey writes, “…I had a novel inside me, and it was a commotion, and the only way to settle it was to write it, and the only way to write it was to be alone.” Though her metaphor of novel as inner commotion pleased me, the Virginia Woolf-ish need for a metaphorical room of one’s own to settle it made me sigh. “Not much new here,” I judged. Indeed, much of her essay addresses her experience of the universal conflict all parent-writers feel. We contort our souls, endlessly accommodating two viciously competitive needs: the love of self and the love of our child/ren.
For the writer there’s an urgency to ink ourselves onto paper and offer it like a hand held out to another in tentative greeting. We want to be grasped willingly and with genuine pleasure so we can feel real and loved. So we can feel whole. It can only happen in relation to another, and it’s never enough; we’re driven to do it over and over again. In the parent, there’s an urgency to nurture our children, to offer our selves to theirs, to be the willing and delighted embrace for them. To be the response they need to feel real and become whole. We plunge into the dangers of loving them over and over again, seeking to create not our own wholeness but theirs. For me, the analogy of writing as birthing a child falls flat. In writing, we birth ourselves to be loved. In parenting we birth another to love.
Dey tells us, “To write is to be in conversation with yourself, to preserve a state of being so you can conclude a sequence of thinking and feeling. The enemy to this process is intrusion. Children, in all of their beauty and wildness and strange genius, are, in the way of a meteorite, an intrusion.” That’s the conflict that contorts our parent-writers’ souls. When we’re writing, we’re abandoning our children. When we’re loving our children instead of writing, we’re abandoning ourselves. It is that black and white, and I’ve had countless conversations about it over the years with women in my writing groups—coincidentally, all mothers of children about the same age. The discussions inevitably slide into casting the “meteorite” as work rather than children, though. Perhaps because it’s culturally imbued in us to see as anathema the parenting of children as an intrusion.
“Aha,” I think; “Dey’s going to tell us that mothers create their own deaths, relinquish their writer-selves so their children can thrive. That’s where this essay is going!” To some extent that’s where she did eventually go, but via a route that surprised me because she addresses one of the most mind-bending, consciousness-altering aspects of parenthood that nobody I know has ever openly acknowledged. She writes, “…when I became pregnant for the first time, death entered the pregnancy. This was a shock, a sick shock, and it lodged itself hard and cold inside me. I had to turn it over and over in my hands. I had to stare into it and see what it gleaned.” For her, this gleaning was “novel size.” She wrote and kept on writing because, she tells us, “To write a novel is to unravel a debate or a distress within—to do the most personal thing in the most fictional way.” She wrote herself out of the sick shock of it all.
For me, the gleaning has been a decades-long, messy and confusing process. I wasn’t able to hold and stare at death in my hands and make a novel out of it. Geez, I couldn’t even handle reading What to Expect When You’re Expecting, that insidious book that magnifies the parent-to-be’s sudden shocking encounter with death—I tore it apart and burned it for kindling in a futile attempt to unthink the little I had read. Even without the overwhelming nature and number of precautions the book prescribed to ensure a healthy pregnancy, my body managed to produce a healthy son. After he was born I wrote, but in fragments—my bits of distress-unraveling were shoved crumpled into my plastic file box, abandoned and unwhole, so I could return to mothering. The conflicting desires chafed some, but child-loving won over writing, hands down, repeatedly.
“A ticker tape hurtles across the mother’s brain listing all of the things she must remember: spoon, bathing suit, milk, booster shot, sign-up, pickup, 3:15,” Dey explains. “These lists are a form of paying attention, which is a form of love. Love, a wise woman once told me, is how you make the other person feel. Love is how you make your child feel. You accomplish the list. And then the list, indomitable, grows anew.” It’s more than list-accomplishment. Parenting is a willing giving of self to be wrung out, exhausted, consumed by the exercise of loving.
What nobody talks about, though (at least in my experience), is the fear. This is where Dey’s essay resonated, and I began to understand why she’d given it the title she did. “No one had warned me,” she writes, “that with a child comes death. Death slinks into your mind. It circles your growing body, and once your child has left it, death circles him too. It would be dangerous to turn your attentions away from your child—this is how the death presence makes you feel.” Yep. With a child comes incessant, brutal fear. I hardly slept for months after my first was born because of the compulsion to check that his chest was rising and falling or to keep my ear pressed to the baby monitor listening for his breathing.
Eventually, I crashed and became so ill that I couldn’t maintain the vigilance. I was forced, finally, to accept that my efforts would never prevent crib-death, the form my fear took at the time. I knew I was feeling and acting bizarrely, but I couldn’t wrap words around the experience to tame it. In her essay for The New Yorker, “A Love Story,” Samantha Hunt wrote, “When I became a mom, no one ever said, ‘Hey, you made a death. You made your children’s deaths.’ Meanwhile, I could think of little else.” I suspect, now after all these years, that most parents experience this unwelcome intrusion of obsessive thoughts. It would have helped me a lot had I been able to talk about it with others, but I couldn’t. It seemed too crazy. “The conversations I had with other new mothers, stayed strictly within the bounds of the list: blankets, diapers, creams,” Dey says. “Every conversation I had was the wrong conversation. No other mother congratulated me and then said: I’m overcome by the blackest of thoughts. You? This is why mothers don’t sleep, I thought to myself. This is why mothers don’t look away from their children. This is why, even with a broken heart, a mother will bring herself back to life.” Yep again. It’s why today, even with grown children and devastating chronic illnesses, I still get up in the morning—to drive death away.
It’s bad enough to contemplate the innumerable physical ways our children might die and how mostly powerless we are to prevent it. What’s worse, because it’s an inevitable part of living, is the awareness of how many emotional and spiritual deaths stalk them. We know from animal research as well as from studies of children in orphanages that unloved children can die not only physically, but also in these other ways. We’re empowered, though, to prevent these other kinds of deaths, at least early on. Our power is love, and we wrap our children in it as best we can to shelter them from the storm of living until they’re strong enough to weather it. That’s what good parents do. It takes a long time. And, the writing waits.
“Oh, now I finally, I get it,” I think. In the meandering way that my essays usually take to their point, Dey gets to hers: “The most popular books about pregnancy have pastel covers, as if to emphasize the mother’s pastel thoughts—women, lightly drawn in Madonna-like repose, on rocking chairs inside a force field of washed pinks, yellows, and blues. The mother’s body, after birth, is to be returned as quickly as possible to its former contours. This is true for her mind as well. No mention of the sudden, crushing morbidity filling the new mother’s soul. No mention of the novel she is dying to write. No mention of death.”
Recently I dragged the plastic file box from under my desk and pulled from it a handful of writing—fragments and drafts of my own mixed in with those of others in my writing group who’d asked for feedback. “Hmmm, this piece is pretty well done,” I thought as I fingered the slim typewritten packet I’d begun reading; “I wonder who wrote it?” A note to me from a colleague appeared on the last page. It contained some praise and suggestions for improvements to the story. “You’ve really got something special here,” she’d written. Electrified with surprise, I realized it was I who had written the story. Some long ago writer-I who’d not succumbed to the crushing morbidity Dey describes in her essay. An I who was resurrecting from the dark place and reaching out to me in hope I would grasp those self-words willingly and with pleasure so that coming together we could be whole.
My fears are less intense now that my children are now 17 and 22, and both away at school. It’s one of the reasons why I’ve managed to start actively writing again and completing pieces rather than shoving them half-formed into that box. I’m feeding a growing belief that perhaps I’ve loved my children into independence, into becoming themselves, into becoming whole. That perhaps along the way I’ve also managed to love myself through the vicious competition between being a parent and a writer, and through the fear. That perhaps we’ve come out of this whole birthing and loving business not unscathed but alive. That perhaps I’m not only a mother who is a maker of death, but also one who is a maker of life. My fear’s still there and probably always will be. Frankly, I’m glad because if it weren’t, it would mean that death had won. And I will not have that. Not for them, and not for myself.
Thanks, Claudia Dey, for making me think. Here is your essay for readers of mine to read: Mothers as Makers of Death.