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Rivka Galchen’s Mother Lode

Her new memoir explores how having a child makes you a different kind of writer.

Dave Thompson / Getty Images

When I turned 30, my mother started making inquires about my childbearing plans with what seemed, to me, like alarming frequency. Never mind that I was just out of graduate school, precariously employed, and living in a dilapidated house with four roommates and a cat. The suggestion seemed to be that I had reached the age when a woman starts twisting herself in the direction of motherhood, as naturally as a flower turns toward sunlight. But for some women—including and especially women who write—the decision to have children demands an impossible calculus. How to measure the unwritten book against the unborn child? Is a re-enchanted world, a writer’s world, worth a stalled writing career?

LITTLE LABORS by Rivka Galchen
New Directions, 136 pp., $16.95

Rivka Galchen’s work addresses this same dilemma. In “Sticker Shock,” a story from her 2014 collection American Innovations, an unnamed mother and daughter meet regularly for coffee and confrontation. The issue at hand is, supposedly, the whereabouts of some family money, but we soon learn that there are bigger things at stake—namely, the daughter’s “reproductive potential.” The daughter, a creative type, has recently separated from her partner; the mother disapproves. Criticisms are paraphrased in blunt language that somehow underscores their emotional charge: “The mother said that the daughter had always done exactly as she (the daughter) wanted, that the daughter was lazy, and that women who don’t have babies become alcoholics, which ruins their figures. The daughter was thirty-three.”

Motherhood, in several of these stories, is at once a fantasy and a threat, something to probe from a distance. But in Little Labors, Galchen’s latest book and first memoir, motherhood comes into intimate view. Modeled on an eleventh-century Japanese text called The Pillow Book, the memoir is slight, just under one hundred pages of lists, anecdotes, and ruminations, all loosely concerned with mothers and babies. Galchen, who gave birth to a daughter in 2013, reflects on the strange, incomparable experiences one has while caring for a small child. Metaphors strain and shift across the pages—her newborn daughter is at first an “opiate” and then a “useless” creature; she’s a “little puma” and, later, “a wounded deer.” She interleaves personal stories and historical miscellany—about Lucille Ball, Japanese literature and film, and the presence (or rather the absence) of mothers and babies in literature.

The book moves backwards and forwards in time, snapping in and out of the author’s life, as if she’s reluctant to linger on any one scene for too long. Little Labors isn’t exactly a memoir of motherhood. Instead, it’s a memoir about the conflicts of motherhood for a woman writer who never identified as a “woman writer.”

Galchen’s decision to write about motherhood—to become a certain kind of “woman writer”—is notable, but not entirely surprising. In recent years, she’s written more from a distinctly female viewpoint, a change from her early fiction. Her debut novel, Atmospheric Disturbances, is narrated by a middle-aged male psychiatrist who believes his wife to be an impostor. (Some see here the influence of Galchen’s medical training; before entering Columbia’s MFA program, she received an MD from Mt. Sinai.) But many of the stories in American Innovations are told from the perspective of slightly unsettled women. They are worried about their marriages, anxious about their futures, and ambivalent about their families, chosen or otherwise.

“I didn’t mean to write a collection where every narrator was a weirdly implacable woman,” Galchen has said of the book. “But I felt like there was a covert project that emerged.” These women may be stuck, unable to make decisions about their jobs or their spouses, but they are also surprisingly observant. One woman, abandoned by her husband, fixates on a parmesan mill’s “comfort” grip. Another finds herself watching the temperature flash on a Jehovah’s Witness Watchtower. Galchen’s women can’t help themselves from noting the absurdities of everyday life.

This same quality of attention animates Little Labors. The book’s fascination with the small and the quotidian adds up to a bigger project: exploring how a child makes you into a different kind of writer. Galchen hadn’t planned to write about having a baby. “I didn’t want to write about the puma,” she explains in the book’s opening pages. “I wanted to write about other things. Mostly because I had never been interested in babies, or in mothers; in fact both topics had seemed perfectly not interesting to me.” But everything she looks at—every film or book or photograph—inevitably recalls her child. The new 47 Ronin film? That’s a parable about babies. A 1200-year-old myth about bamboo cutters and spaceships? That’s actually a “straightforward and basically realistic” story about babies. Frankenstein? That’s a novel about having a baby, maybe even the novel about having a baby. Soon, Galchen is trying the patience of her friends as she describes how her baby ransacks the bathroom cabinet. She realizes that she is now a different kind of adult, one of those “people who get along well with babies.”

To become such a person means to exchange one community for another. Though most strangers smile at her and her child, Galchen finds herself “suddenly invisible” to “the young-ish, white, well-employed, culturally-literate male.” She’d long felt at ease among such men. As she tells it, “Up until I was about thirty, I had a strong preference for men over women. … If a male and a female exactly alike were to enter a room, in my deformed perceptions the male was magnified into glory.”

This trait, inherited from her mother, shaped her intellectual life and her social world. She recalls her panic at 25 when she glanced at her bookshelves and saw they were filled with books by men. Seeking to diversify her reading list, she took up Denis Johnson, mistakenly believing the author to be a French woman. (“I didn’t run with a bookish crowd,” she explains.) She later came to love Muriel Spark, Helen DeWitt, and contemporary Japanese female crime writers like Natsuo Kirino. In a section called “Women Writers,” she imagines writing an essay about these and other writers, including “a list of male writers that I thought were somehow ‘female’ on the page … something to do with the volume of certain kinds of quiet.”

Indeed, the voice of the memoir is muted, reflective. Sentences unspool slowly, following the shape of a thought. The spare prose is punctured by cheeky humor and by the occasional, lovely simile—for instance, a baby’s hand “grasping and ungrasping like a sea anemone.” Some of the book’s best moments describe the daughter’s sweet idiosyncrasies. We learn that the child has an appetite for olives, and that she places books on the floor simply so she may stand on them. She has an abiding fear of a friend’s aloe plant.

These episodes are matched by meditations on motherhood and the writing life. “Notes on Some Twentieth Century Writers” is a catalog of fiction authors, arranged by number of books and number of children:

Flannery O’Connor: No children. Eudora Welty: No Children. … Toni Morrison: Two children. First novel at age thirty-nine. … John Updike: Many children. Many books. First book age twenty-five. Saul Bellow: Many children. Many wives. Many books.

Elsewhere, she reflects on two “mother writers” from medieval Japan. Sei Shonagon, author of The Pillow Book that so fascinates Galchen, once defended herself against a former lover with a “display of wit and learning”—which Galchen appreciates as a flex of “the one kind of power Shonagon has.” But more than that, she marvels at the way Shonagon “obscures that power passably, in an elegant humility.” The appreciation is also an apt description of Galchen’s own style.

Many women have written compellingly about the relationship between motherhood and writing—think only of Alice Walker’s landmark essay “In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens.” But in the last few years, there’s been a noticeable uptick in such books, and the topic has gained the attention of critics. Galchen herself has kept track of those writing about motherhood—in “Mother Writers,” she mentions Elena Ferrante and Sarah Manguso as two who write “specifically about motherhood, and in a genre we recognize as literature.”

But there are more: in the last two years alone, Jenny Offill, Heidi Julavits, and Maggie Nelson have published books about having and raising kids. Far from nineteenth-century “domestic fiction,” which was often didactic and sentimental, this writing is erudite, ironic, and experimental. Like Little Labors, these books are more coherent collages than linear narratives. Motherhood is a subject, but it isn’t allowed to overtake the whole narrative of a life. Their authors have been praised as “sly and strange and a little sexy.” And fairly so: The writing is bold, and the voices are important.

So too, though, are the voices of women who have decided not to have children, and who, in writing about this decision, court cultural scorn. The essays collected in Megan Daum’s 2015 anthology Selfish, Shallow and Self-Absorbed: Sixteen Writers on the Decision Not to Have Kids all speak to the social pressure heaped on women to have children, regardless of their desires, their economic means, or their biological capacity for childbearing. (Men face some of this pressure as well.) This is to say nothing of feminist writers and thinkers from earlier decades who poked holes in the myth of radiant motherhood—one recalls Shulamith Firestone’s infamous line: “Let me be clear: pregnancy is barbaric.” It’s galling that the culture at large still portrays motherhood as the natural and necessary choice. Laura Kipnis, writing about just this cultural idea, reminds us how malleable the concept of “the natural” is. “It’s not that I think maternal instincts don’t exist; they certainly do,” she explains. “But they exist as social conventions of womanhood at this moment. They’re not, in fact, eternal or permanent, because what’s social is changeable.”

The best recent books about motherhood come from writers who seem to have absorbed this lesson, and they write in conversation with it. They describe moments when “maternal instincts” are more fantasy than lived reality. Some emphasize the costs of childrearing for women living and writing in patriarchy. Ferrante’s academically-minded mothers can often be found fleeing their grasping young children; guilty and yet exuberant, they demand lives entirely their own—only to return when the appeal of independence wanes. The female writer who narrates Offill’s novel intended to be an “art monster” but became a mother instead. Other writers call gender itself into question. Nelson, in her memoir about making a queer family, rejects the binaries that culture so often imposes: between normative and queer, between maternity and artistry. Her sentences, filled with phrases like “at the same time,” signal her embrace of irresolution. “There is much to be learned,” she concludes, “from wanting it both ways.”

In Little Labors, Galchen demonstrates the same acute self-awareness but transmits it more elliptically. She is honest about wanting it both ways, if also at times a bit coy. Her baby gives her a reason to live, and there are “days when this does not feel good.” A family joke that a baby is a “goldmine”—that you could charge strangers money to be with her—is at once “true” and also “not the case.” The equivocations can at times be unsatisfying for a reader, but they also seem entirely authentic. The baby is indeed a paradoxical gift—she has “re-enchanted” the world while also claiming all her mother’s attention. As Galchen explains, her daughter made her “more like a writer (or at least a certain kind of writer) precisely as she was making me into someone who was, enduringly, not writing.”

Books like Little Labors offer a glimpse into an unknown future, a chance for women still unsure about children to see how their lives and minds might change. You may grow bored or invisible, they tell us, but you may also become quiet and humble. You may find new meaning in old stories, or you may seek new communities to take the place of the old ones. Paradoxical, puzzling, at times even maddening, these books ask us to learn from their explorations of contradiction. These are books with many questions and few answers; they withhold comfort and offer instead productive confusion. Wrestling with contradiction is a hallmark of the writing process—Little Labors suggests it is also a feature of modern parenthood. Perhaps this isn’t something to fear or reject but to recognize, accept, and, simply, express.