“A birth story is a bit like… a war story”

“A birth story is a bit like the female version of a war story – an endlessly repeatable, endlessly compelling ritual form. We know its contours, its rhythms, its stakes. We know that our hero makes it out alive – they’re here to testify to what they’ve seen. All that may feel familiar. But what opportunities for unexpected newness would get missed if we avoided the familiar, the conventional, the universal?”

Molly Fischer, in her review of The Argonauts by Maggie Nelson.

Thinking on this. Working on this.

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Shifting gears

From how-to, nut-and-bolts, what-to-do-when-the-baby-won’t-sleep books, to more literary takes on mothering a baby. There are less of these books than you might think.

I recently read Rivka Galchen’s Little Labors and Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts. Both of these books are made up of fragments. This is no coincidence. Our brains are fractured now, the time we get to ourselves is measured in seconds or minutes, not hours and definitely not days.

Rivka Galchen says, summing it up so perfectly: “In late August a baby was born, or, as it seemed to me, a puma moved into my apartment, a near-mute force, and then I noticed it was December…”

And: “My life with this very young human resembles those romantic comedies in which two people who don’t speak the same language still somehow fall in love”.

And: “A baby is a goldmine”.

Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts is a doozy. It’s about motherhood, step-motherhood, queer familymaking, and gender fluidity, all suffused with poetry and theory. I was mesmerized by it.

Maggie Nelson on pregnancy: “For the years I didn’t want to be pregnant – the years I spent harshly deriding ‘the breeders’ – I secretly felt pregnant women were smug in their complaints. Here they were, sitting on top of the cake of the culture, getting all kinds of kudos for doing exactly what women are supposed to do, yet still they felt unsupported and discriminated against. Then, when I wanted to be pregnant but wasn’t, I felt that pregnant women had the cake I wanted, and were busy bitching about the flavor of the icing. I was wrong on all counts – imprisoned, as I was and still am, by my own hopes and fears. I’m not trying to fix that wrongness here. I’m just trying to let it hang out”.

And more on pregnancy: “Is there something inherently queer about pregnancy itself, insofar as it profoundly alters ones’s normal state, and occasions a radical intimacy with – and radical alienation from – one’s body? How can an experience so profoundly strange and wild and transformative also symbolize or enact the ultimate conformity?”

And the most empowering sentence I’ve ever read about a birth. “Here he comes. It feels big but I feel big enough”. Wow.

Go read these books, especially if you’ve had a baby yourself, but even more especially if you haven’t. These stories will not be recognized as literature until people who don’t birth children (typically the tastemakers and gatekeepers of what literature is and isn’t) read them and soak them in.

What a freedom it is, to read again. To take this time for me, to do my most favourite thing.

Reading so much…

about motherhood, and how to write. Claire Vaye Watkins helps me sort it out.

But I do see a lot of newly mothered women who are writing in a much more fragmented, impressionistic, lyrical, language-driven way. For me, when I’m breastfeeding, I can’t think of a 300-page narrative arc and, also, I don’t see the world like that anymore. When I’m waking up every 90 minutes, the world becomes a really fragmented, dream-like, lyrical place, so that aesthetic doesn’t really apply. If I were going to try to write a book like that now, it would be a lie.

and

It’s also this all or nothing thing. It’s an extreme binary—I did it bit earlier myself—between men’s writing or women’s writing; between narrative-driven epic novels and smaller, more fragmented, domestic pieces. Or when I evaluate my own work, I still ask, “Is this art or is this a mom blog?” It would be wonderful if our kids came up in a world where mom blogs were art if they were fucking good enough—if that was the only criteria they had.

Watch me wrestle with this question, and why it even has to be this way: “Is this art or is this a mom blog?”