JULY 7, 2017
I AM THE IDEAL AUDIENCE for Sarah Menkedick’s book Homing Instincts: Early Motherhood on a Midwestern Farm, a book anatomizing the experience of being simultaneously pregnant, a writer, and living on an Ohio farm. Like Menkedick, I am a writer — and I live in Iowa, hacking away a Midwestern living out of a crumb-infested, pee-stained, child-riddled existence. I’ve lactated while a guest on a Huffington Post Live segment, scooching down in my chair to hide the tell-tale circles while I nodded seriously at the question from the host. I’ve transcribed interviews, cringing as I heard my children scream, “Who farted in here?!” drowning out the recorded voice of the important person I was interviewing. I’ve pressed the phone to my ear trying to talk to an editor, while tossing fistfuls of fruit snacks at my toddler, while running around the park, trying to convey with a hand wave and a stern frown the “Mommy is doing important work here!”
At its core, Menkedick’s book tries to grapple with the task so many of us face: reconciling the indignities of motherhood with the pressures of work. Well, not work so much as art; Menkedick isn’t exactly in the same boat as most of us. According to her depiction, she doesn’t have to work in the traditional sense of paying bills and affording childcare. The book takes place while she and her partner live rent-free in a cabin on her father’s property, who also helps with childcare. Fed and cared for, Menkedick is allowed the space few women have, to sit with her pregnancy and truly grapple with its implications for her life. In the book, Menkedick maps out a binary: motherhood versus serious art. Her goal is to reconcile the two and rescue motherhood and the feminine from patriarchal realms where those qualities are devalued. It’s an admirable project. Yet the binaries she attempts to reconcile, and the fact that she poses them as binaries, often erase the complexities of motherhood, feminism, and writing.
The book is a pregnant Walden — traversing the space between the internal and external, both a record of a real time and a carefully formal creation — a growing child, the changing of seasons, location, and identity. It is here in this gestational dissonance that Menkedick grapples with her identity as a writer in light of her new identity as mother. She describes her dreams of becoming a respected literary journalist and contrasts them with her reality — pregnant and living in Ohio — which, as she explains, “forced [her] to confront the persistent cultural prejudices [she’s] long held against the perceived feminine: against domesticity, motherhood, the imagined softness and weakness of introspection as compared with real, hard, muscular experience.” There are two sides in her perception: feminine and masculine, motherhood and muscularity.
Late in the book she concludes:
In these months and coming years, I also recognized that for as much as I may follow a male formula for success, traipsing through jungles and writing with cool detached bravado, I would never be afforded the privilege of maleness. If before I had been able to nurture a vision of myself as the odd one out, the prodigy, the foreigner, the strong woman running with men, I now came to understand that there were forces I could never outrun, and that in the very act of running I was limiting myself and my writing to a narrow realm of proficiency.
That motherhood causes such a clash of identities is neither surprising nor new. In W. R. Dakin’s 1897 A Handbook of Midwifery, he writes, “Child-bearing is known to have a particularly marked influence in causing insanity in those women who have an hereditary taint of madness or of other marked neurosis.” The solution was not to diminish the potential for demands of motherhood — but rather isolation at home or in an asylum, a respite from the demanding world of the mind.
Dakin, a British physician, wasn’t the first to suggest that an active mind was bad for mother and child. Or that to protect her mind a mother should be devoid of all intellectual stimulation. For centuries, motherhood has been held in opposition to intellectual pursuits. Medical practitioners from medieval times through the Enlightenment believed that a child’s deformities could be linked to the things a mother saw or ate during pregnancy, or even her innermost thoughts. In A Cabinet of Medical Curiosities, historian Jan Bondeson explains how according to legend a noblewoman became pregnant with a hairy child after copulating underneath a picture of a bear. Even as recent as the early 1900s, birthmarks and birth defects were all read as moral or visual failings, a sign a mother had not kept her mind and thus her body pure. Autism was for many years attributed to a mother’s lack of love and warmth.
Although that theory, like the theory of maternal impressions, has been disproven, the idea that a mother is still not fit for labor, particularly intellectual labor, still informs the way we speak about pregnancy. Mothers are encouraged to relax and rest. Many women quit working because they find the pull between the demands of motherhood and the demands of work too overwhelming. Women put eggs in the freezer and milk in the cupboard and blame it on pregnancy brain.
To nod and say this is simply because of the persistence of patriarchal attitudes in medicine and society is a rhetorical trapdoor — it’s too easy a way out of the complexities of how motherhood fundamentally changes a person. Yes, patriarchal attitudes are real, but so are postpartum psychosis and depression. Science has proven that a mother’s stress level impacts fetal health. Exhaustion, lack of maternity leave and affordable or accessible maternal care, and preoccupation with the demands of the child cover women in a heavy blanket of responsibility that is often difficult to escape. And while there is no conclusive science that proves a pregnant woman has diminished intellectual capacity, ask almost any mother why she lost the keys in a salad bowl and she will tell you, without irony, that her body was too busy making a baby to think. To write these complications off as a limitation of thought or a patriarchal literary legacy dismisses the real and desperate needs of mothers who don’t have access to affordable childcare, struggling to pay bills in a culture that lauds them but does little to actually help them.
It’s not hard to understand then why women who are mothers and intellectuals feel like they must prove themselves, furiously railing against the forces that would segregate motherhood from more “important” endeavors. Writers like Adrienne Rich, Louise Erdrich, Rachel Cusk, Sarah Manguso, Rivka Galchen, and Anne Lamott have sought to reconcile the complexities of motherhood with the demands of art. Homing Instincts is part of this legacy of literary motherhood. In a recent op-ed, Menkedick writes,
Birth is only, after all, is the single most important experience of our lives. Like war, sports, medicine, epic travel, it’s a matter of blood and sweat and gore and suffering, of life and death, of triumphing over the limits of body and mind, except: Only women can give birth. So birth is imagined as an ingenuous, icky realm for the dull-minded.
As a mother and a writer, I have the sense that I too should value this argument. And yet, I find that it chafes, because the binary of motherhood versus art, patriarchy versus matriarchy, removes the conversation of its complexity.
It’s disingenuous to say that motherhood is ignored or undervalued in the literary canon. Wallace Stegner in Angle of Repose creates one of the most vivid image of the confines motherhood I’ve ever read. O. E. Rölvaag’s depictions of mothers going mad on the prairie forever haunt me on school days. There is Catherine’s motherhood and madness in Wuthering Heights, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, the Virgin Mary peacefully holding of the infant Christ, the rage of Medea.
Also, insisting that motherhood has been ignored, in turn ignores the very women who have been making art of motherhood for centuries. Erma Bombeck, Mary Shelley, Adrienne Rich, Mary Cassatt, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Zora Neale Hurston, Erica Jong, Alice Walker, Toni Morrison, and on and on. Additionally, there are many women who write amazing moving accounts of birth and motherhood. They are typically just called mombloggers — their writing, precisely because it is by and for women, is dismissed, but that does not mean it should be; certainly it should not be ignored by writers seeking to amplify this narrative legacy. Privileging some form of art over other (more feminized, popular) ones segregates the very voices of mothers who are and have been doing exactly what Menkedick is doing herself — making art.
Both Galchen and Erdrich have lists of mother writers in their books. Erdrich notes that more mothers have written since reliable birth control became common place, and she argues that women writers “must often hold their mates and families at arm’s length or be devoured.” Yet, this oppositional approach to motherhood and writing is not one size fits all. Many women and have found their voice and inspiration through motherhood. For others, the balance is less fraught. And the reality is that time — both the passage of a woman’s life and the movement of history — changes these positions.
In fact, there is a whole constellation of women who have and are making motherhood as art. It seems a little anachronistic for Menkedick to insist so vigorously that it be considered as such, when in fact it is already. This is not to erase all bias, which exists in the publishing world as well as all of our worlds. But the legacy of motherhood in art and as art is more complex than the work/motherhood binary presented.
In fact, the elevation of “motherhood as art” has often been to our detriment — casting the ideal of motherhood high on a pedestal from which so many women have fallen. Artistic renderings of motherhood have been used just as much to hurt the cause of women as they have to help. Elizabeth Gaskell’s Ruth depicts a sacrificial model of motherhood that is detrimental to the health and well-being of the main character, and offers a conclusion that is fraught with sexual shame. Writers such as Kate Douglas Wiggins, Martha Finley, F. Carolyn Graglia, and Janette Oke have used motherhood as a righteous justification for women to take on a more passive role in society and in marriage.
The insistence that motherhood ought to be considered art strips art of its history of complicity in the promotion of patriarchal norms. Menkedick, herself, admits to this complicity in a way. She writes about how she used to privilege other topics of writing over motherhood, but the source of that impulse is never fully mined. Again, here “patriarchal norms” doesn’t suffice as an answer. And it falsely paints the impulse not to write about motherhood as evidence of some internalized patriarchal oppression, when perhaps the topic is simply just not always interesting to the woman, mother, and writer.
And why should it be? Motherhood in and of itself is not always profound. Giving birth is almost unremarkable in its commonality. Many women have given birth and remain unchanged. Motherhood is a not a cloak of moral superiority any more than possessing a penis or going to war. It’s an understandable urge to try and make every moment teem with meaning, but sometimes, your kid pukes, you catch it, and the moment is everything and nothing. Sometimes you just sit and stare at your baby, because what the hell else can you do? Just as much as motherhood has always been part of art, not all moments of motherhood rise to the level of great significance, aesthetic or otherwise. The everyday realities of motherhood are not all about noticing or experiencing. They are not always elemental. Sometimes they are just what they are — a lot of hard shit that you scrub out of your carpet because someone pooped on the floor (again). To assert that motherhood is in and of itself significance, is kitschy in its denials of shit. And any rendering of motherhood that doesn’t grapple with shit cannot be fully honest.
Just as not all motherhood rises to the level of significance, motherhood itself is no pure endeavor bequeathed with an inherent moral goodness. Some moms are shitty. Mothers abuse. Mothers, even the good ones, want to run away. Insisting on motherhood as art without facing its darkness is an incomplete argument. Rich faces this darkness; so too do Cusk, Lamott, and Galchen. Menkedick does not face this darkness head on. She writes about a moment of frustration with her child as she tries to calm the child while dinner guests drink and chat just outside the door. But this moment immediately reconciles once the baby falls asleep.
In another section, Menkedick writes about the boredom of motherhood. Yet, she elevates this boredom as a Zen-like state of contemplation and noticing. She writes, “The ultimate shallowness of artistic fervor became terrifyingly clear in pregnancy, and although there are moments when I get my fierce ambition back, its centrality has forever been tested.” Which is a nice position if you are a mother whose work is optional. But for how many mothers, really, is that true? Menkedick separates writing from work, establishing that for her, writing is not about money; it’s a personal endeavor. Yet, treating writing as a lofty art, rather than hardscrabble work, evades a larger question of how women and work are viewed.
The frustrations of the interminable waiting of parenting are not always about reconciling a self to a life outside of the “Anglo-Protestant” hierarchy, personal fulfillment, and the “overwhelming American pressure to conform,” but about actual survival. Using an iPhone during breastfeeding sessions is not always a distraction for women; it’s about earning a paycheck. When these nuances are stripped from the conversation about what motherhood and work mean, these moments lose their relevance and also bring up a question of audience. Which mothers are supposed to find meaning in these observations when the observations overlook their reality?
Toward the end of the book, Menkedick writes about her new self, the one that has emerged from the rock tumbler of motherhood, noting:
I have shed the pressing need for purpose. I don’t need to be able to define a book’s themes, its goals, its message. I’ve developed an aversion to stories that have too clear an aim; I want the heady, dreamy immersion of novels or of stories so intimate and pressed up close to a life that they have no bigger picture. I want to feel the world called up, depicted in its contradictions and coincidences and complex schemas.
Here Menkedick’s conclusions ascend from the easy binaries that much of the book relies on, and align with the complicated history of motherhood in culture: that the closer you look at it, the more complicated it becomes. Even the science of birth is inconclusive, a tangled mess of myth and medicine. The lesson here, if we can be so reductive, is that no one benefits from polemics or binaries. Motherhood can feed inspiration and sap it. Motherhood is the realm of both the saint and the monster. Motherhood can, as the early medical texts argued, give rise to a temporary insanity. It can also be a force for sanity. Motherhood is art. Motherhood is just shit. Motherhood is all of these things and none of them. Motherhood is as much a woman’s undoing as it is her making. What motherhood means for an individual depends not on the act of giving life, but of living it.
Lyz Lenz in the managing editor of The Rumpus. Her writing has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, Columbia Journalism Review, and others. Her book The Death of the Midwestern Church is forthcoming from Indiana University Press and Belabored: Tales of Myth, Medicine, and Motherhood is forthcoming from Norton.