May 19, 2017KR BlogBlogLiteratureWriting

Carrying Chaos Inside

This is the second installment of a series on writing and motherhood. Read part one one, and part three.

Today I told my husband I wanted to find a way to write about becoming a mother. He said—and I paraphrase because he by no means talks like this—“When you want to impress people you draw back, get theoretical. This time, get really close, invite the reader inside your body, describe in detail what your heart smells like.” Actually, he probably said something more like, “You’re a good writer; don’t be pretentious,” but it was too late. So, on to those heart smells.

The desire to have my first baby hit me on a night like any other, with Vietnamese sandwiches and bubble tea. Something changed when I put on my seahorse necklace and my mom forwarded me the video of the male seahorse giving birth—synchronicity. I started getting hungry for a child, which was fitting since my life is defined by consumption: books, food, movies. After watching Wall-E, I tried to figure out what kind of robot I’d be. I decided a hungry one probably. I even dream of eating cupcakes, letting my teeth loose in the refrigerator like mechanical tooth toys. I wake up sore from phantom mastication.

That night of the seahorse video and Vietnamese sandwiches, I flushed my pills down the toilet so I could never go back to being ideologically without baby. Even though I wouldn’t be pregnant for months, I spoke already to my imagined child, and didn’t even have to be in an asylum because even the kind of motherhood that hasn’t happened yet can do that to you. I was glad to finally have a societally-sanctioned insanity, a feeling that got to the quick of things, and, eventually, a form of creativity people could see.

Then, when I did actually get pregnant, I started to worry that giving birth would be a harrowing experience. While sequestered in the library doing reading for my theory class, I saw that discussions of violence, destruction, and death often hovered so close to discussions of birth. I read Derrida on birthing imagery: a baby is monstrous, unformed, unnamed, without the comfort of meaning. Maybe every act of creation requires a violent rupture, kind of like childbirth—a big bang, a gory break with all that came before, a parting to let the new life through that’s never pretty. Either way, I figured the act of building someone else’s tiny body inside my own and then letting it loose on the unsuspecting world was bound to have some intense ramifications.

The mention of death in the same sentence as birth may seem strange, but consider a philosophical tradition in which putting together and taking apart have always been interconnected. The funerary text The Tibetan Book of the Dead, for instance, leads the reader through the perceptual journey that lies between death and rebirth, or the in-between space of the bardo. In this model, existence is more circle than straight line; although anyone who’s ever lived knows no shape so tidy could do justice to this labyrinth.

Now that I’ve given birth, I don’t know any longer how to speak of my body. My previous understanding of it as an everyday object was naive. It’s a threshold—the mirror Orpheus travels through to the underworld in Cocteau’s film about a poet newly able to hear radio transmissions from the beyond. If this all sounds like a lot to take in, that’s because it was. But, as Nietzsche knew, “You must carry chaos inside you to give birth to a dancing star.”

As I moved through my own flagrant birth scene, I felt this mysterious part of me come alive, something about my own creative force throbbing in my thighs. I was stuck by this radical act of invention. As a writer I knew most of what we feel remains nameless, locked inside us without even the hope of release through language. But the thing was this baby would come out, and in turn would give birth to writing about it. Or maybe the baby was the writing. More than anything I remember the maniacal passion that came on like a heart attack when I saw what the result of all that pushing would be: this purple creature of tenderness suddenly came exploding out of me and I got to keep it.

That mad passion ran wholly counter to Sigrid Nunez’s description of the ingenious Susan Sontag grabbing her son’s glasses and half-heartedly squeegeeing them clean, this brilliant writer’s rare maternal gesture. I could get a demerit for being so retro as to love motherhood despite its many challenges—and maybe even for still wanting to be a writer at the same time. But then, before I had successfully wrapped my mind around being a mother or satisfactorily written about it, I was pregnant again.

On the one hand, there was the mad passion. The problem was that the moments of pleasure I had doing things considered domestic, including my motherhood most of all, could feel like something I had to hide because they happened not in a boardroom or university but within the humble four walls of the home, beneath a pile of laundry. On the other hand, I still wanted to force open the doors of the literary universe and be something more than just “Mom.” And, no, that woman’s article in the Atlantic about how the key to being a successful writer-mother is to only have one kid was not what I wanted to read while praying for a piece of the writing kingdom while pregnant with my second child.

Plus, this time I was having a girl. Not only was I eating for two, I was thinking about being a woman for two so I could teach my baby girl all about it. At the same time, I was getting good and tired of parts of the female experience, feeling monstrously imprisoned by it even, and really wishing to write a whole new genre for my daughter to inhabit or explode as she saw fit.

Pregnant with my girl, I was simultaneously struggling to make something special of myself and to make someone special, striving to produce a baby and a piece of writing about that baby. I was hungry all the time and my mind scalped me. I was so hard on myself. But, especially now that I was going to have two kids, I needed to be able to be not virtuoso but wrinkly old pear, not literary award winner but slacker who spaces out while she’s supposedly “working on her dissertation,” abuses her gym membership, and hits on her husband by wearing a dog sweatshirt, sprawling on the couch, and winking. I had to content myself to just haul myself onto the horse of my day every morning, slug away at my different projects, and put in my writing time. While studying quest patterns, I learned the hero is often an antihero who fails at what she thought her quest to be, but succeeds at her true one. But what was my true one?

As I ordered myself to write about motherhood day after day, I was greeted only with a bad bout of writer’s block on the subject. In a shocking twist (or maybe not so shocking if you know me), at this stage I turned not to theory but to teen television. During the first months of my daughter’s life, I wanted to be writing, watching, and reading brilliant things that I could brag about on social media. Instead, for some strange reason, my deep philosophical questions about birth, death, and motherhood necessitated the compulsive re-watching of Dawson’s Creek as I fed my daughter all through the night. What was it about my maternal odyssey and my urge to chronicle it that led me back to a show I’d watched when I was the characters’ age? Perhaps there was something comforting about watching these girls who maybe hadn’t even gotten their periods yet, as I lived with the lovely and overwhelming consequences of my own fertility.

One night after my daughter finally fell back asleep, I should have slept too, but instead I stayed up all night searching for models for the kind of writing I wanted to do on motherhood. I found many, but perhaps none so poignantly aligned with my inner city as Maggie Nelson. I still fear she’d get a restraining order against me if she knew how many times a day I think of her as I sit down to write. See, I’d be more than okay with other women having creepy reactions to my writing, which is probably a personality flaw, and also why I don’t police my Nelsonalia.

After reading Rivka Galchen’s lyrical book on being both writer and mother, Little Labors, a reviewer “fantasized that we might have breast-fed while watching the sexy antihero Louis C.K.” If this were ever the case with writing of mine, I would consider my work well done. All I really want to do with my typing is make another woman feel less alone—oh and make her want to breastfeed with me while watching Louie.