Rivka Galchen’s Little Labors and the literature of domestic ambivalence, reviewed.

Motherhood Can Be Antithetical to Great Art. It Can Also Inspire It.

Motherhood Can Be Antithetical to Great Art. It Can Also Inspire It.

Reading between the lines.
May 4 2016 10:00 AM

Speak, Motherhood

How parenting can birth great writing.

mom reading.
Being a parent changes your relationship to time: It speeds it up, it slows it down.

whitetag/Thinkstock

Having a baby can feel like developing a thrilling new hobby that others find immensely boring, as if you have spent nine months gestating an obsession with model trains. What, if anything, about your model train will be interesting to others? Just the stories where you make fun of yourself for being fascinated by model trains? Perhaps you should avoid saying much at all, except to those who kindly insist upon seeing model train pictures. It’s easier to hang around other hobbyists so as to talk about how all of your trains are sleeping and pooping un-self consciously.

Willa Paskin Willa Paskin

Willa Paskin is Slate’s television critic.

But are babies really boring, or is it just that, like everything, some people make them so? Can babies really be like other people’s dreams, of no interest unless one is in them? Even admitting that babies spend the first months of their lives staring at walls and smiling, meaninglessly, at their own farts, why would this make their mothers dull?

Advertisement

“I didn’t want to write about the [baby]. I wanted to write about other things. Mostly because I had never been interested in babies, or mothers; in fact both topics had seemed perfectly not interesting to me,” writes Rivka Galchen in Little Labors, a slip of a book about exactly these topics. Small, red, and 96 pages—if pages were ounces, something like a baby—it elliptically, recursively interrogates the absence of these subjects from literature.

Little Labors is part of a burgeoning group of structurally adventurous books concerned, explicitly and implicitly, with motherhood. It is a group that includes Maggie Nelson’s unclassifiable masterpiece The Argonauts, Heidi Julavits’ chronologically shuffled memoir The Folded Clock, Sarah Manguso’s diaristic meditation on diary-keeping, Ongoingness, Rachel Cusk’s essay collection on the alienations of motherhood, A Life’s Work, and Jenny Offill’s fractured, aphoristic novel Dept. of Speculation. These books are short, digestible, digressive, personal, often fragmented. They combine memoir, biography, diary, critical and academic readings, anecdote, factoids, and a kind of mystical sense of coincidence. Motherhood hums through all of them, sometimes loud enough to be their very subject and sometimes as a background noise heard only in the books’ staccato forms, which—among other things—are a solution to the realities, both physical and mental, of early child care.

These books have antecedents: Little Labor’s lodestar is Sei Shonagon’s The Pillow Book, written around the turn of the first millennia in Japan. Galchen describes it as “difficult to characterize. It’s not a novel and not a diary and not poems and not advice, but it has qualities of each,” a good précis of most of the books under discussion. Maggie Nelson often works in fragments. Her Bluets, an exploration of the color blue, was a riff on Wittgenstein’s aphoristic style. Wittgenstein is name-checked on the very first page of The Argonauts. (Rebecca Solnit’s A Field Guide to Getting Lost, which is stylistically similar to many of these books, though not concerned with child-rearing, is also a paean to the color blue. This is the kind of coincidence that these books might make something of.) In The Folded Clock, Julavits makes multiple mentions of a book she cannot get through, the collected letters of the Goncourt brothers, two men about town in 19th-century France. That book’s gossipy, epistolary pleasures are not so different from those of The Folded Clock.

These books also overlap with those Kimberly Brooks recently identified as the “literature of domestic ambivalence” in a New York magazine essay that asked, “Is parenthood the enemy of creative work?” But what is distinct about them is not their ambivalence, so much as their creative opportunism: These are the books that can be written. (As such, they answer Brooks’ question with a firm “no.”)

Advertisement

They have a hothouse quality, the products of hungry minds feasting on what is nearest at hand. They individually and collectively make a case for motherhood and babies as properly literary subjects, even if they themselves lack certain qualities—length, argument, narrative, objectivity, masculinity—often associated with the properly literary. These books proffer, in some instances, evidence against the dullness of babies. In all instances, they successfully make a case against the dullness of mothers.

* * *

Motherhood is an arena guided by strange manners. We are meant to be smitten and sated, but total satisfaction is the sign of a drone. Similarly to the Amy Schumer sketch in which a group of women would rather die than take a compliment, to say one has a handle on life with a small child, let alone contentment, is a kind of bad manners. A certain amount of abashedness about and discontent with the whole arrangement—but not too much!—is taken as a sign of a discerning mind.

Little Labors is a book of many sections, some running to a few pages, some a few sentences. One section reads, in its entirety:

Other People’s Babies
Are often noted to not be of interest.
Advertisement

In “A Reason to Apologize to Friends,” Galchen tells a story about a cabinet that her pre-verbal, not yet walking daughter joyfully ransacks and that she is left to tediously straighten, over and over. One day Galchen asks her daughter if she would please leave the shelf alone. She does. “And after that I—I tell this anecdote to friends who will listen, as if it’s interesting,” Galchen writes.

Galchen is an elegant and careful writer and she has included this story in her very precise book: It is, in other words, interesting. But she understands that custom and self-awareness dictate that parents dilute their genuine delight in the presence of the un-smitten. One’s baby comprehending for the very first time is both glorious and pedestrian. Every sentient person on earth has done it. This is true of every amazing thing that babies do.

* * *

Ambivalence has become the fashionable pose to adopt about motherhood. There is, of course, lots to feel ambivalent about, but the wishy-washy, perpetually in-the-middle note that the word ambivalence strikes seems to me a pretty poor description of the moment-to-moment experience of parenting. Child-rearing, instead, is jumping from intensity to intensity—from boredom to joy, satisfaction, exhaustion, and around again. It is only with some remove that this array gives up its scatter graph specificity and can be cudgeled into a best fit line.

160503_BOOKS_author-photo-little-labors
Rivka Galchen.

Nina Subin

Advertisement

Short sections are truer to this than longer narratives. It is in trying to thread all those experiences together, coherently—writing the transition sentences, crafting the story—that the blahs descend. Dept. of Speculation is a deeply ambivalent book about a child’s impact on work and marriage, and yet it still contains sections like this: “I would give it up for her, everything, the hours alone, the radiant book, the postage stamp in my likeness, but only if she would consent to lie quietly with me until she is eighteen. If she would lie quietly with me, if I could bury my face in her hair, yes, then yes, uncle.” (Offill has also written a children’s book, Sparky, about a girl and her pet sloth. The child has a benevolently nonhovering, writer-type mother, and it is amusing, in a funhouse mirror way, to imagine this mother is working on Dept. of Speculation. The stories we tell our children about how we experience them is different from the one we tell our peers.)

In Little Labors, Galchen writes about her unexpected happiness when her daughter was very small. “I, and I registered this as rare, I was myself at the time not melancholy. Not at all,” she says. Dozens of pages of later, in a section titled “New Variety of Depression,” she writes, “It’s true what they say, that a baby gives you a reason to live. But also, a baby is a reason that it is not permissible to die. There are days when this does not feel good.”

Parenthood does make you think more about death, your own and theirs, but not always in predictable ways. I am a nervous flier, but the first time I flew with my infant daughter, I was unusually calm. I think it was a relief from all the worrying that I would die and leave her alone; that I would die and be left alone, without her. If we died on this airplane, at least I was where I was supposed to be, with her; maybe, even, I had done what I was meant to do, had her. I found this thought, and the feelings behind it, so unlike me as to have been implanted in my mind by some other me I barely know. I still don't know if it embarrasses or moves me. I guess that’s a kind of ambivalence.

* * *

Advertisement

The only book I read in the first three months of my daughter’s life was The Argonauts, a searching, open-hearted, wide-ranging book about love. Perhaps because Nelson is an academic, the book brims with proof of deep reading. Reading takes nearly as much time as writing, and for “mother writers,” to steal a term from Galchen, time is of a premium: Turning to personal experiences and books known by heart, as most of these other works do, saves some. One of the cheapest—but still satisfying—ways to read The Argonauts is as a compendium of the best quotes from people you will never (but totally mean to) read and that a mind as good as Maggie Nelson’s has read for you.

On the subject of motherhood, Nelson is not ambivalent at all. She tells us, proudly, that 10 percent of The Argonauts was written hooked up to a breast pump, the sort of thing that most people might present as a real drag. Nelson, instead, is pulling back the curtain: This is how the work gets done, thanks to breast pumps and other buoys. Nelson is also the kind of mother who ignores “the baby books that sternly advise against rocking or nursing your baby to sleep, so that she learns to go to sleep by herself; I am blessed with the time and the desire to hold Iggy until he slips off, and so I do.” In the context of The Argonauts, this adds to the sense of Nelson as an enlightened being, here enacting one of the book’s lessons: that the compromises we make for love do not have to be compromising. I, myself, do not feel ambivalent about motherhood, but out of the context of The Argonauts, if some woman were to tell me she always rocked her baby to bed—at the start, at least a four-times-daily occurrence—and never longed for the baby to fall asleep faster, never longed to be doing something else instead, I would think we had nothing to say to each other.  

I wonder if Maggie Nelson had her phone with her for all that rocking.

* * *

Short segments and fragments, in particular, do something besides breaking child-rearing down into its intense, component parts. They make every observation gleam. Just as a drawer stuffed with objects seems to be full of junk, open it up, take each thing out, and those objects reveal themselves as a rubber band ball, a postcard, the garbage ties you had been looking for. This style may suit new motherhood, a time when everything feels, in Galchen’s words, “ludicrously, suspiciously, adverbially sodden with meaning”—but also, it just reads cool.

* * *

In a section in Little Labors called “Things That One Was Misleadingly Told Were a Big Part of Having a Baby,” Galchen writes, “Diapers. Changing them. Bottles. Cleaning them. Wraps. Baths. Sleeplessness. Cheerios. All these things exist, but rise to consciousness about as often as the apartment’s electricity does.” I know what Galchen means, and as part of a project to make motherhood less banal, I even appreciate it. But Cheerios now appear in the most unexpected corners of our house. And sleeplessness, don’t remind me about the sleeplessness.

* * *

Another powerful rhetorical trick deployed by these books: linking thoughts through juxtaposition, not language, a sure way to achieve a portentous, dreamy mood. (See also: Joan Didion.) In a section inspired by A Room of One’s Own, Galchen says that she has often wanted to “write something about ‘women writers,’ ” but she could not make out exactly what. She senses that there is some connection between a variety of half-thoughts and observations, but she can’t quite nail the link down, because the baby keeps interrupting. In Ongoinginess, explaining how her son changed her diary-keeping, Manguso writes, “Then I became a mother. I began to inhabit time differently. It had something to do with mortality.”

This is like leaving jigsaw pieces that may or may not belong to the same puzzle side by side. One assumes they are of apiece. By not committing to a narrative or an argument, these books can occasionally teeter close to hocus-pocus: You steel yourself for a section on astrological signs. (It never comes.) A certain amount of logic, and in some cases even rigor, is sacrificed for the lulling tone, the wild but potentially meaningful connections. Galchen believes that orange is currently such a popular color for baby accessories because it is the color worn by prisoners at Guantánamo Bay. I did not find this convincing, but I enjoyed her attempt to convince.

When I think about why I find all of these books so moving, I am sure it has something to do with the feeling, fading now, I would get when I first started to leave my daughter, a feeling that I had gone undercover, was somehow in disguise as a normal person. What’s not normal about having a baby?

* * *

Being a parent changes your relationship to time: It speeds it up, it slows it down. Life, which tends to be long and fast, gets longer and faster still. Afternoons stretch on eternally; your kid turns 1 in an instant. Manguso, Galchen, and Offill all describe the feeling of living through a day that is thousands of hours long. Julavits’ book is unstuck from time. All of this is known, even to people who don’t have children. And yet I was still unprepared for just how much time parents spend with their babies, the cause of this warped chronology. All but the most negligent parents spend what had once seemed to me like unimaginable hours doing nothing much with their kids. At the start especially, time feels like it did when you were yourself a child, endless, shapeless. Going anywhere takes forever. Going nowhere takes even longer.

* * *

In A Life’s Work, a series of scorching essays on motherhood, Rachel Cusk laments the lack of any real accounting of childbirth; when she was pregnant she worried that an absence of detailed writing about the experience of labor suggested that laboring mothers take leave of their minds, a possibility Cusk found horrifying, not reassuring. Cusk is wrong. There are many, many accounts of birth (though they may be too touchy-feely and nonliterary for Cusk to do anything but suspect them). But she is wrong in an instructive way. We may, culturally, do a tedious job conveying the experience of parenting to nonparents—think of the harping on diapers and baths and all those things Galchen mentioned as being of no more note than (the miracle of) indoor electricity; think of all those television shows that treat children like inconvenient props—but nonparents are unknowingly incurious about the felt experience of parenting, even those of us who imagine ourselves to be curious. (Before my daughter was born, a friend gave me a book on almost exactly this subject: I made it through the first chapter.)

In Little Labors Galchen grapples with her own incuriosity, her one-time conviction that mothers and babies were “perfectly not interesting” because they were so female. Galchen writes that through her 30s she would rather have been friends with men than women; that her bookshelves were once full of male authors; that a misbegotten attempt to start reading women began with Denis Johnson. (Her first novel, the critically acclaimed Atmospheric Disturbances, was even praised for being notably not female.) Little Labors makes up for these past preferences. There is a section in it archly titled “Literature Has More Dogs Than Babies.” “Notes on Some Twentieth Century Writers” lists dozens of famous female novelists, who either have no children, abandoned their children, or wrote their first book in middle age, and a few male novelists, with lots of children, who wrote their first books in their 20s.

Little Labors is openly aggrieved about the absence of mothers and babies, and the women who would write about them from literature, but it is not just aggrieved. Like all of these passionate, polished, controlled books, it is a demonstration: Babies and mothers are rich, worthy topics, and you need look no further than these works to see that this is so. This is one way that writing—which is to say working and thinking—can co-exist with mothering: You write the hell out of being a mother.

In The Argonauts, the pediatrician and psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott is quoted as describing parenting as an act of “ordinary devotion.” Parenthood is also a time of ordinary transformation, and these books, in their content and in their forms, testify to that; an aloof novelist writes a personal chapbook; an obsessive diarist loses interest in her diary; all the writers are fascinated, in one way or another, by their own changing. Parents become someone at least slightly different than who they were before, and just because this is commonplace, does not make it, in the dismissive sense, common. To become a parent is pedestrian and amazing, too.

Late in Little Labors, in that section inspired by Virginia Woolf, Galchen writes in almost documentarily accurate stream of consciousness about an afternoon spent with her daughter:

… At the moment, the baby is beating a small wooden cutting board against the ground, that the cutting board had at one point had on it an apricot I had sliced into tiny bits for her, she has since sat on some, and smashed some into the ground, she has taken a lengthy interest in my wallet, she has held the supermarket-discount-points card at a distance, then put it in her mouth, then held it at a distance away again, she has not yet learned to crawl but can drag herself across the floor to the edge of a set of stairs I am hoping to keep her from exploring further, she has gathered fuzz from the shag rug here at this rental cabin that has been obtained as a luxuriously imagined Room of One’s Own, she has been interested in having her hand inside of my mouth, and has not been interested in lying down, she is now trying to pull herself up along a ledge and is now trapped in a position from which she can discover no out and so requires rescue by the large being (me) who is always with her, later she needs rescue simply from being on her stomach, and so in brief moments, between these activities, I have one-third of an associative thought … but really I’m insufficiently upset about not being able to think, and then the baby falls asleep.

This is a kind of coyness. Galchen can think. She has had so much more than one-third of an associative thought. This whole gorgeous paragraph is the proof. All she needed to get it down was a baby, and some time away from her.

---

Little Labors by Rivka Galchen. New Directions.

See all the pieces in the Slate Book Review.