Reviews | April 24, 2018
Panic at the Playground: Motherhood in an Age of Anxiety
Woman No. 17 by Edan Lepucki. Hogarth, 2017, 320 pp., $26 (hardcover).
The End of Pink by Kathryn Nuernberger. BOA Editions Ltd., 2016, 96 pp., $16 (paper).
Good Bones by Maggie Smith. Tupelo Press, 2017, 99 pp., $17.95 (paper).
Protection Spell by Jennifer Givhan. University of Arkansas Press, 2017, 76 pp., $17.95 (paper).
Hard Child by Natalie Shapero. Copper Canyon Press, 2017, 96 pp., $16 (paper).
In a rally leading up to the 2016 Presidential election, then-candidate Donald Trump stopped his speech to comment on an unruly member of the audience. “Don’t worry about that baby. I love babies. I hear that baby crying, I like it. I like it! What a baby. What a beautiful baby.” Minutes later he stopped again to say, “Actually, I was only kidding. You can get the baby out of here . . . I think she really believed me that I love having a baby crying while I’m speaking.”
That moment, replayed on the Internet, felt emblematic of a certain cultural duplicity toward mothers. People love babies. They are precious, innocent, and beautiful. The women who bear them are vessels that carry the promise of the next generation. But so often those women do the “wrong” things. They are irresponsible and undeserving. They don’t raise their children properly. They may not have conceived them properly. The babies themselves are suspect by their association with these women.
No wonder, then, that in recent writing we encounter mothers feeling anxious and paranoid. How are they to know which face of our culture they will meet—the face of doting love of all things maternal or the face of sneering contempt for women and their inconvenient babies? In the books considered below, motherhood feels tenuous, sometimes in literal terms because of infertility and loss of pregnancy, but just as often because the world feels inhospitable at best and hostile at worst. Their fears have varied causes, but these mothers share a sense that some hidden malice may underlie ordinary life.
Edan Lepucki’s Woman No. 17 is about mothers failing in a multitude of ways. The novel is narrated by two women, one of whom is a mother and both of whom have lived in the stormy weather created by their difficult mothers. Lepucki gives us these women in their own words and also through the other’s eyes, a device that reveals how much they hide, even as they want to confide in each other.
One of the narrators, Lady Daniels, is looking for a nanny after having separated from the father of her two-year-old son, Devin. Lady also has an older son, Seth, from an ill-fated romance that essentially did in Lady’s already fragile relationship with her overbearing, perfectionist mother. Alone in the posh L.A. home she acquired with her second husband, she tries to find a new profession by writing a memoir about her life with Seth, who has selective mutism. He can hear, write, and use sign language, but he has never spoken a word.
The other narrator, Esther, has recently graduated from college and reinvented herself as S. She applies for the nanny position, looking for a way to support herself using her child development major while secretly trying to make up for what she feels is her failure as an artist. S has committed herself to a kind of performance art piece in which she becomes her mother, the carefree, blunt, irresponsible, and alcoholic Katherine Mary. She pursues this project by swearing off makeup and flattering clothing, speaking as directly and artlessly as she can, and, when she’s not on duty watching Devin, drinking blackout quantities of vodka.
In their first interview, Lady and S enter into a kind of role reversal. The mother, who should be conducting the interview, allows the nanny to take the reins, espousing her theories about childcare and development. In answer, Lady jokes about keeping her toddler in a box and letting him play “coffin,” until S asks, “Are you sure you’re a mother?” Rather than going on the defensive, Lady seems to revel in flouting S’s expectations, at least as long as the questions remain playful. She signals to S that she is not pious or sentimental about motherhood.
However, Lady becomes prickly when S questions whether Seth ever had speech therapy. The question hits a sore spot, where Lady’s love for Seth as he is meets her doubts about whether he could have been different. In spite of the show she puts on for S, Lady harbors her own doubts about whether being a mother comes naturally to her. In a memory from the days just after Devin was born, she insists that she is not maternal, even as her husband reminds her, “Would you please just look at yourself? Your baby is sucking milk right out of your body.”
Lepucki acknowledges social media as a source of anxiety for mothers. S mentions a classmate who did a senior project on mommy blogs “about how they simultaneously inspire and create anxiety for other mothers.” Lady spends the early chapters of the novel lurking around Seth’s Twitter account and flirting with the idea of opening her own. When she does start an account, the consequences are about as bad as she could have expected.
As the novel progresses, S becomes deeply entwined in Lady’s family life, to both her pleasure and her discomfort. Not surprisingly, S forms a caregiver’s bond with her cute toddler charge, but she also becomes friendlier and friendlier with her employer, even as she develops an ambiguous but intense relationship with Seth. In spite of their age difference, and in spite of—probably because of—their mutual preoccupations with what it means to be and to have a mother, the relationship between the two women never shades into a mother/daughter dynamic. After a night of drunken bonding, Lady tweets “The sitter is my best friend.” It’s an earnest if maudlin expression, but when Seth sees it, it sets off a series of events that reveal how much Lady and S have been keeping from one another.
Social media performances aside, Lady seems to be constantly under observation in the novel. Her house is situated near a bluff where the overlooking homes (she calls them “eavesdroppers”) can see her swim in the pool. The novel’s title is a reference to an art photograph of Lady in a series of “Woman” portraits by a famous photographer, Kit Daniels. The photo not only captured her in a much less glamorous previous life; it served as her ticket out. The photographer’s twin brother, Karl, saw the photo, was fascinated by Woman No. 17, contacted her, and eventually married her. Even after Karl moves out of the house he shared with Lady, the photograph that introduced him to her hangs in their closet. It serves as a reminder of how she appears in his gaze, how being seen altered the course of her life.
Unbeknownst to her, Lady is presently becoming the subject of another art project. Attempting to deepen her work, S adds to her idea of becoming Katherine Mary a second plan: to make a series of paintings and posed photographs recreating pictures of “people’s mothers before they became mothers.” She solicits these pictures on Craigslist, with a boost from Seth’s Twitter account, and receives several photos, most interestingly a snapshot of a younger Lady and a man who must be Seth’s mysterious, absent father. S plans to recreate the photo, and though she senses Seth would like to help by taking his father’s place, she declines to ask him. She decides to pose as Lady and leave a conspicuous absence in the man’s place.
Ultimately, it’s not the estranged readers of social media or the viewers of Woman No. 17, not her young lover or her husband or her sitter whose judgment terrifies Lady—it’s the judgment of her children. The teenage Lady reveled in being pregnant but felt unable to cope with her newborn: “It’s not that I wanted him to be taken away, it’s that I wanted him back inside.” Inside, she could protect him, but outside he is already slipping away from her. “Did Seth know what he was being born into?” she asks.
Even as an older woman, with one son nearly grown, she doubts her ability to give Devin what he needs. She fears that he’s not coping well with his father being absent from the house, but when he attaches to S immediately, Lady thinks maybe he just needs another, more capable adult. She looks at her inscrutable toddler and wonders if he sees right through her, because who knows what a toddler is ever thinking? Is the toddler crying because a human woman is inadequate to all that we need a mother to do and to be, or because his socks feel funny?
While Lady worries about not being up to mothering her children, S worries over things that could get her mother evicted and fields drunken phone calls in which her mother accuses her of not caring. Unlike S’s lovable and doting father, Katherine Mary has little to offer her daughter, emotionally, materially, or in any other way. Yet S remains fascinated by and, in a way, loyal to her. When S loses herself in the binge drinking, “it was like I was stepping back into the womb, tunneling father away from that even, to before my mom had anyone but herself to fail.” When S’s job and her artistic plans unravel, the first place she seeks comfort is her mother’s arms.
As S takes on the mother’s role in her first conversation with Lady, planning how best to raise little Devin, she imagines a different reversal with her mother. She wishes she could “take Katherine Mary from scratch, and raise her to be a fine, stable woman. Because I believe, I have to believe, that Katherine Mary’s raw ingredients were sound: it’s the barely remembered mother who died when she was a baby, and the vodka-pickled father who never said I love you, and the junior high school music teacher with the roaming hands, and the . . . on and on and on, that ruined my mom.” Though this is a compassionate way for S. to look at her mother, I imagine it would also be Lady’s nightmare, as it suggests that the soundest baby can be turned into a disaster by the circumstances of her upbringing.
The jacket copy of Woman No. 17 calls the book “noir,” and it does have an ominous air. As I read it, I waited for calamity. Though plenty goes wrong, it never felt like the book delivered on that sense of dread—and that’s fitting. The relationships in this book are filled with dread because it is easy for mothers and children to hurt each other. If the plot never goes full Sam Spade, that doesn’t necessarily mean the stakes are lower. It does, however, give the novel a hopeful cast. Woman No. 17 is full of women acting badly and making mistakes. They may suffer the consequences, but the children thrive anyway, and the mothers live to fail again.
While Woman No. 17 lets its characters graze past death and destruction, several recent poetry collections give free rein to the dark imaginations of mothers and expression to the violence and fear in their lives. Lacking the perspective Lepucki’s two narrators offer on each other’s fears and foibles, these poets’ exploration of what one of my friends called the “cave of motherhood” is deeper and wilder.
Kathryn Nuernberger’s The End of Pink displays ample awareness of the ways mothers, and women in general, are punished for their failures in the eyes of the culture. This collection describes the mythical movement from girlhood to maidenhood to motherhood through the lens of a broad and pleasingly weird array of sources: accounts of nineteenth-century science experiments and medical cases, philosophies of René Descartes and Jacques Derrida, and the tabloid story of Bat Boy. Her telling troubles the neat progression from innocence to experience, and the poems manifest a distrust of innocent poses, even as they retain empathy for the girls who take them. The markers of motherly experience may signal a transition, but not a true end as the book’s title suggests.
“Wonders and Mysteries of Animal Magnetism Displayed (1791) as What I Want Is” tells the painful story of a miscarriage. Nothing prepares the would-be mother for this sudden end, in a bathroom where her shocked mind can only trace the patterns of the tile and rehearse all the things health class failed to teach her “like how big / a placenta is and how veined and how / purple.” Remembering this moment “makes / my chest hurt with flapping and repeating geometry.” Like a patient of the historical Dr. Mesmer, who theorized that energy transferred between animate and inanimate objects, the mother doesn’t want to “consent to the procedure” prescribed for her. She doesn’t want to be “cleaned out” and move on. Instead she wishes Mesmer’s magnetism would work on her, affixing the lost child so there could be “no floating off.”
In “Rituals of the Bacabs as the Strange Case of Kate Abbot,” the would-be mother reads the story of a mysterious illness, “the 17th c. case study of an English woman, / also named Kate, bleeding and sweating forth needles, page / upon page of it, until I wished, for her sake, she would die.” The woman’s tortures feel antique yet familiar: “if / I’ve learned anything, it’s every time you go to a doctor / they put something metal in your vagina and sometimes it’s sharp / and sometimes it’s not and sometimes your baby lives / and sometimes she does not and sometimes you stop bleeding / and sometimes you start.” Across the centuries, both Kates are perplexed about what happens to their bodies and why, even when the changes are happy ones. After eleven years of silence about his former patient, the doctor writes, “K. Abbott today / in the marketplace. Inexplicably well, mother of two.” and the latter-day Kate jumps to her own miraculous turn: “Shall I tell you now / about my beautiful child? Shall I tell how she’s going to live forever?”
The second section of the book is a series of poems about a character called the saint girl. The saint girl is constantly being tormented by very small devils, who seem to delight in her increasingly frazzled resistance. She begins with earnest piety, but in “The Saint Girl Opens the Window and Closes it as She Pleases,” she wakes “one morning to despise the ribbon in her hair and the dry river of thirst running through her.” At the end of the series, when the saint girl gives up asceticism and gives in to pleasure, the torturing devils disappear, or rather they are apotheosized: “Their nacreous diffractions pearl across the lenticularis stratosphere like the rainbow of a happy ending.”
The saint girl is a virginal character, but “The Saint Girl Takes in Strays” presents her the opportunity to become mother to a baby mouse, which she keeps in a soup pot. The poem reaches for a description of motherly love, which the saint girl finds impossible to extricate from religious feeling: “The saint girl’s chest was warm and aching with Christ’s love every time she lifted the lid and there is nothing about that I wish to mock . . .” Nuernberger cuts through this warm sentiment with foreboding. When the girl puts the baby to sleep at night “she shivers to think about the Holy Spirit at the kitchen window, the great bird’s three raptor toes clawed around the silver bark of the hawthorn tree.” In the same moment that she feels the warmth of love, the saint girl feels her baby, and her motherhood, may be snatched away.
With its archival sources, The End of Pink places motherly fear in a long line of succession but also ties it to uniquely twenty-first-century troubles. “Property Lines,” for example, makes a symbolic connection between a miscarried child and an azalea bush that springs up where she was buried. The mother takes her second child to where the bush grows, and as the child reaches to touch it, “it felt like we were all together.” The poem juxtaposes the blooming with drought and death. While the threat of climate change looms on the large scale, closer to home the county authorities send a “cheerful” tractor operator to mow down wildflowers in the roadside ditches.
In “Toad,” one of the more direct poems of the collection, and one of the most affecting, the mother describes a bad parenting moment involving a rushed morning, a demanding child, and a training potty mishap. “Sometimes she is so full of need I push her to the floor.” It’s a small trauma but a first, and the distance it puts between them startles both mother and child: “she’s my beautiful child, but in that / button snap of a moment she was suddenly just one more person.” The mother, inquisitive about this moment, regretful that it happened, refuses to perform contrition. Rather, she uses it as an opportunity to probe that necessary, painful, liberating distance. “I’ve been wondering a long time now what the limit is / and when I would find the end of myself.” The day she pushed her child to the floor was not a good one, but it ended, and “this is the day that comes after.”
Nuernberger’s poems often have a breathless quality, the syntax of a sentence it spinning farther and farther from where it began. It’s as if she doesn’t trust that her chance to speak won’t be shut down. The poems in Maggie Smith’s Good Bones proceed in a different frame of mind. Smith often repeats parts of lines, modifying what the repeated words mean as she works toward clarity.
The title poem of Good Bones circulated widely on the Internet in 2016, so widely that Public Radio International declared it the “Official Poem of 2016.” “Good Bones” is a short but capacious summary of how terrible the world is: “For every bird there is a stone thrown at a bird. / For every loved child, a child broken, bagged, / sunk in a lake.” Though the mother rehearses these ills to the reader, and mentions the “ill-advised ways” she has chosen to cope with their knowledge, she keeps it all from her children. “Any decent realtor,” the poem ends, “walking you through a real shithole, chirps on / about good bones: This place could be beautiful, / right? You could make this place beautiful.” Smith ends the poem “First Fall” with a similar gesture: “I’m desperate for you / to love the world because I brought you here.” These lines, which commingle a sense of desolation, a desire for hope, and a feeling of guilt for subjecting a child to it all, make it easy to see why Smith struck a nerve.
Of course, a mother can’t keep everything ugly from her children forever. In “Deer Field,” she has to break the news that development by people has edged out wild places for deer to live, including one airport-contiguous space where they used to watch deer together. The promise of whatever is being built “doesn’t matter. I have changed her. / I have given her the first in a long list of disappointments, clearing away / a perfect, wild space in her to make room.” In this book, as in this poem, most learning is a falling off from an ideal state. This does not keep the mother from attempting to answer the child’s questions (about the sky, the future, being burned to death), but it does give the child’s natural curiosity a mournful cast.
As the child grows, she grows out of her childish “why” questions and into books that explain the world to her. These, as the mother notices, tend to feature orphan heroines. The fathers are absent, but that doesn’t really matter—“what matters / is the mothers, who must be dead for any rising / action to happen” (“If Anyone Can Survive”). The mother tries throughout the book to give her child roots that bind her to the world, but maybe a parent is actually an impediment.
In a series of poems interspersed throughout the collection, Smith tells what feels like an allegorized story of a mother raising her child in the absence of the child’s father who has “gone over the mountain // to work for a year” (“Marked”). As time passes, the mother and daughter grow closer, creating shared routines and stories that gradually displace the girl’s memory of her father. When he finally returns, in “Splinter,” there’s no room left for him in the circle they have made. In another series, Smith explores a strange connection between a child and a hawk. One on the ground, the other in the sky, they seem to move in tandem as if, the mother muses in “The Hawk-Kite” they are connected by a string.
In spite of what reason tells them, parents may indulge in imagining an extraordinary fate for their children, wanting nature to bend its wildness and heel to them. It’s easy to expect the universe to behave differently toward your own child than you have observed it behaving toward others. Smith’s poems by turns flirt with this magical thinking and explode it. In “Rough Air,” the mother confronts fear of death not by praying but by invoking her children, though she knows very well that “motherhood / never kept anyone safe.” Our children’s need for us may feel like it overpowers physics, but it is no insurance policy. It won’t keep a plane in the sky.
The dangers in Jennifer Givhan’s Protection Spell feel even more imminent than those in Good Bones. She writes about women’s desire and the violence to which it makes them subject, ranging from an honor killing in India to a human sacrifice in Peru. At heart, however, this is an intimate book, exploring a women’s Latina identity, her past history of partner violence, the trials (literal and figurative) of her black husband, and her fears for the black child they adopted. Protection Spell offers blessings and prayers for a hard-won family and curses for the world that endangers it.
In “Race in America,” the mother describes conversations with an employee at the agency where she adopted her son: “No joke, black babies are cheaper— / white ones cost ten grand more. That’s not / how she phrased it, on the phone / after the gauge of my uterus / had fixed itself on empty.” For these new parents, the wheels turned quickly, delivering them the baby they had almost despaired of. They know the speed with which they got their wish reveals an ugly truth about how we value children.
Violence against black men and boys casts a shadow over these poems. In “The Polar Bear,” the young son holds a stuffed polar bear while watching a very uncuddly Discovery Channel show about climate change pushing bears into conflict with walruses. The bloody fight between a bear and a mother walrus is both a horror in itself and a stand-in for the horror of “riot funerals riot arrests / riot nothing changes riots.” Juxtaposed with this domestic scene is the dream poem “Protection Spell (Riot’s Eye).” Here the mother dreams of her son being chased: “I watch and I watch / like a black hole swallowing / a baby universe.”
“The Accusation” reveals the family dealing with a charge that the father, Sunday, looked in the window of a house to spy on a naked teenager. Even the policeman, who comes to their home with the white accuser, understands what is at stake: “Don’t limp to the station, // man, run, and tell them your side of the story.” The protection the mother offers is also a curse: cutting off her husband’s braids: “my hands // on the scissor blades, colorful wings, Folklorico skirts / in my Delilah grasp, dancing us to safety.” As their baby sits by, she understands this may someday be his fate too: “Our boy // with caramel cheeks, with curls budding to kinks, / burning in the playpen, unsung and unchanged.”
Protection Spell opens with a poem that, as with many in the book, has the quality of litany. “My God, Nieve” celebrates a tenacious mother god, praising her various aspects: “My god at the laundromat says her washing machine works / but the power’s out so she’s been drying it by line. My god // waits in line at the WIC counter to weigh her kids . . .” This collection turns for spiritual guidance to for women who have created and nurtured families in scarcity, in the face of violence, and in defiance of the ways the larger culture dismisses them.
Like Protection Spell, Natalie Shapero’s Hard Child bears the marks of domestic violence. It reflects on pregnancy and infancy while also recounting a traumatic past relationship and a general sense that the mother’s escape from violence was just a lucky break. For some poets, this might make for celebratory poems about survival, but for Shapero it leads to a sense of surreality. She confronts the terrors of motherhood and personhood head on, with a mixture of fatalism and bravado. Shapero’s prickly sense of humor is as essential to the book’s pleasures as her penetrating skepticism.
Thoughout Hard Child, questions about giving birth are intertwined with thoughts of death. In these poems, the speaker denies that she fears death—in fact, she seems to welcome it. More than that, she identifies so strongly with death that at times she seems surprised to be among the living or confused about the difference. Life and death blur in “You Look Like I Feel”: “Dirt on my chin and I wonder: Am I already / in the ground? Like a toy turned real, I cannot shed / the sense that I have died.”
In the first poem of the book, “My Hand and Cold,” the mother-to-be considers the possibility that her baby will not live: “I bought the bound ONE THOUSAND NAMES / FOR BABY, made two lists: one if she’s born breathing, // one if not.” In her list-making the mother is freer when she imagines a baby who won’t have to reckon with the name she was given, “suffer shaming, mull its range and implications, blame it, change it . . .” A baby who will not have to endure the indignities of the world doesn’t need to worry so much about who she is.
If it seems heartless to compile a list of names for a baby who doesn’t live, Shapero answers the criticism in the next poem, “Hard Child”: “So I had two lists of names for a girl, so / what. The president’s allowed to / have two speeches, in case the hostage / comes home in a bag.” This poem imagines a doomsday scenario, in which the mother survives and, afterward refuses to carry on a single “human tradition.” The list of human traditions she goes on to renounce moves from the high-flown “marking feast days” to the annoying habit of making worn-out observations, such as “how the advent / of photography altered painting, / soured us on the acrylic portrait” and so on. As in “My Hand and Cold,” the tragic possibility is also liberating, allowing the mother to break free from customs large and small.
“What Will She Go As?” offers another version of the baby’s absence. The mother’s friends speculate about a costume for the baby, due close to Halloween. They brainstorm famous babies, but the best costume, the mother decides, is the Lindbergh Baby. She details how each parent would need to dress as Lindbergh before reaching the obvious conclusion that somehow didn’t hit me until I read it: “This costume / works best if the baby / is nowhere to be found.”
One of the book’s most searing lines, which I remembered after reading the book the first time as being directed to the unborn baby, is in fact addressed to a dog: “I wish she could have a single day of language, / so that I might reassure her don’t be afraid— / our whole world is dead and so can do you no harm.” It’s a cold reassurance, but it somehow manages to carry a sliver of comfort.
In Shapero’s poem “Monster,” she responds to a question in a childbirth class about fears: “My greatest fear // is the ongoing nature of history, // its verve and predation and oceanic rage.” It’s a sentiment, if not a phrase, that the mothers in any of these books might have expressed. To say that motherhood is scarier now than at any other time would be to ignore history, but twenty-first-century mothers might be forgiven for feeling the press of its ongoingness more sharply. For those of us who have conceived, borne, and raised children in America during the ostensible war on terror, it feels like there is more to fear all the time.
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