Tag : motherhood

October 23, 2020 by

Perilous Childbirth. Yes, Even Now.

In a small ultra-Orthodox hospital in northern Israel, pregnant women seek the Rebbe’s blessing before undergoing medical procedures, like induction of labor, or surgical birth. Recently, Dr. Chavi Karkowsky, an obstetrician who sees patients with high-risk pregnancies, attended a woman whose water had broken at 23 weeks, far too soon. She feared the woman’s rebbe would instruct her to continue the pregnancy, even if it was life-threatening. She told the woman in Hebrew, “You are the most important person in the world.” The woman smiled and replied, “That’s exactly what the Rebbe said.”

Whether or not they have a rebbe they rely upon for religious counsel, all people giving birth should have their own lives viewed as sacrosanct. Naturally, they enter pregnancy filled with hope, anticipating joy. Media, art, and most pregnancy books stoke these expectations by depicting pregnancy with a happy ending. But birth stories are almost always far more complicated.

Karkowsky’s new book, High Risk: Stories of Pregnancy, Birth, and the Unexpected (Liveright, $26.95), is a specialist’s meditation on caring for women in this life stage. Karkowsky, who currently practices in New York City, pulls back the drape veiling American hospitals to tell dramatic and tragic stories of birth and pregnancy—one pregnant patient is so debilitated by pregnancy morning sickness that she is hospitalized for weeks, another’s life is saved, and a third woman’s baby is born but won’t live.

These stories often end in cliffhangers. We are left guessing what happens to some mothers-to-be in Karkowsky’s care—one has an abnormal ultrasound, another is dosed on unneeded medication (and given too much), and a third leaves hospital care to tend to her family against Karkowsky’s advice. The incompleteness of these stories undergirds one of Karkowsky’s central points, which is that birth stories are not simple, nor are they fixed. Where they begin and end is muddy, since doctors and patients rarely see each other completely.

The book benefits from a fascinating central tension that is both personal to Karkowksy and highly political. She loves her patients, supports their bodily autonomy, and champions their ability to direct their own care. However, she also acknowledges the failings of the modern medical system she works in, one in which birthing people are often traumatized, dehumanized, and suffer more than they should. Witnessing her wrestle with these opposing realities highlights the intractability of the problems that beset hospital birth today. And yet her willingness to both personalize these problems and confront them gives me hope.

Karkowsky’s chapter about implicit bias and racism in obstetrics—which has produced a maternal mortality rate more than three times higher for Black women than white women—provides powerful testimony. Too many Black mothers are dying during and after childbirth. Curiously, we rarely hear from their doctors. Karkowsky is quick to recognize her position of power in a medical setting, not only as the doctor, but as a white woman. She describes feeling grief for the unacceptable loss of these Black women’s lives, and also shame for being part of the system through her role delivering babies. Routinely, Black women’s postpartum suffering is ignored, or their pain isn’t believed, as was the case with tennis great Serena Williams, who nearly died of a blood clot after delivering her daughter in 2017. Williams had a history of blood clots and knew what was happening, but nurses assumed that she was confused. Karkowsky describes how racism seeps into Black women’s perinatal experiences, and shapes how they relate to their doctors. Her perspective is an important contribution to the work needed to provide unbiased care for Black women giving birth.

Reading this book, I often thought that had I faced major pregnancy complications, I would have been very lucky to have looking after me a highly trained professional as thoughtful and wholehearted as Karkowsky. Some of her patients feel this way. Others don’t, and instead reject what she has to offer— technology, expertise, advice—and she recounts those tales too. They support another one of her theses, that the stories women tell about their healthcare and their own bodies are subjective, evolving, and very much their own.

Allison Yarrow is a journalist and the author of 90s Bitch: Media, Culture, and the Failed Promise of Gender Equality (Harper Perennial, 2018) and the forthcoming book, The Mother Load: How Patriarchy Stole and Controls Pregnancy, Birth, and Motherhood, and How We Can Take Them Back (Seal Press).

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September 9, 2020 by

My Hair as a Metaphor

I lived trying to fit in. It was much more than “curly hair wasn’t in style back then.” It was: “You can’t exist.” It was: “Do not exist.” It was expressed as: “What’s wrong with your hair?” with the questioner trying not to laugh when asking.  

My hair was a problem to be solved. From inside and outside the walls of my house, my hair was a symbol of something larger that had nothing and everything to do with me.


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May 29, 2020 by

I Told Our Son He Can’t Come Home

He asked to borrow the car. 

Just two weeks earlier, he’d been sheltering with us in our Hudson River town, where he’d stayed for the first two months of lockdown. Despite our pleas, he returned to Manhattan. On a whim before leaving, he took the antibody test and learned that, like 30% of people infected with the coronavirus, he’d had it asymptomatically. Considering himself safe, he asked if he could stay overnight before taking the Honda. I reminded him that no antibody test is highly reliable and that nobody knows yet whether a true positive test means a person is immune. I had to say no. 

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May 20, 2020 by

Embracing “Quasi-Motherhood” With Humor and Empathy

Dani Alpert is one funny lady, and like many comics, she uses her life as a prime source for her material.  After falling for a divorced dad of two, she struggles to find a way to embrace the offspring she claims never to have wanted.  Fast forward to the break-up with said boyfriend, which comes with an unseen punch—by this time, she loves the kids and wants to keep them in her life. 

Alpert talks to Fiction Editor Yona Zeldis McDonough about her new memoir, The Girlfriend Mom, in which she gives us the skinny on how she does just that—and what she learns along the way. 

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January 16, 2020 by

Toni Morrison Gave Me Permission

Toni Morrison











On one of my visits back to campus in my late twenties, I spoke to my former advisor, Toni Morrison about my fears about combining writing with (then-still-theoretical) motherhood. I’d grown up watching my own mother break gender barriers in her field of immunopathology; I was familiar with the challenges working mothers faced and with the efforts required to overcome them. Just recently, one of my grad school teachers had been vocal and adamant about his opinion that female novelists who had children were dooming their writing lives. Thrown by this assertion coming from a mentor, I repeated the words to Morrison.

“Yes,” she mused, utterly unimpressed. “They always say that.”

And there was nothing more to say. In a heartbeat, the boredom with which she viewed the topic fused with my own refugee- born mother’s one-syllable response to sexist barriers: “Feh.”

Years later, visiting New York from Boston with my six-month-old in tow, I took the train out to Princeton yet again. Scheduling this visit had been difficult and time was short; I sat in Morrison’s office, my baby in a sling strapped to my chest. There were some writing-related topics on which I was eager for her opinion, and after a quick update on work and life I launched into them.

My baby was facing outward at Toni Morrison, who therefore could see what I couldn’t see: my child’s face. Midway through the conversation, Toni Morrison said, in that rich, wry, resonant voice of hers, “I think your baby is doing something.”

I tried to keep talking, knowing each minute of this brief meeting was precious. But some things in life are undeniable. I ran to the bathroom, did the quickest diaper change of my life, and got back into the office to continue the conversation, which we resumed without missing a beat.

At a Jewish literary conference the prior year, a prominent critic had approached me and asked what I was working on—a question I’d never been asked by someone of that stature. Yet before I could open my mouth to answer, a well-known Jewish writer— having just heard me tell a friend I was a few months pregnant—literally elbowed me away from the critic, inserting himself between us as we walked and answering the critic’s question for me: “She’s working on a baby.” He walked off with the critic, leaving me behind.

Yet here I was in the office of Toni Morrison, a writer whose work dwarfed every other piece of contemporary fiction I was reading. And diapers didn’t diminish this conversation.

RACHEL KADISH on the Lilith blog.

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July 9, 2019 by

From M.D. to Baker, Beth Ricanati’s Memoir of Challah

What’s the story behind Braided?

About five years ago, I realized that baking challah had taught me a lot of lessons that were universal; maybe they would be helpful to someone else.

What life lessons?

When I started baking challah, I was stressed and unhealthy, as both a doctor and a mom. By making challah, I was able to reclaim some sense of self. I realized that making challah was a ritual—and this got me thinking about the importance of having a ritual in one’s life.

It also got me thinking about community. I’d serve the challah on Friday nights, and if my kids had friends over for dinner, they’d have challah, too. Then I’d get these calls on Saturday from my kids’ friends’ mothers, and they’d say ‘I don’t know what it was you made last night, but I want to learn how to do it.’ So I’d make challah with some of my children’s friends’ mothers, and [now] I make challah with other women here in Los Angeles or as I travel around the country sharing Braided; we are building community together.

We’re not just building community, we’re sustaining it, too. In 2019, the world is pretty stressful. You can see that just by opening the newspaper. But on Friday I can make challah here in L.A., and I know that Meredith is making it in N.Y., and Miriam is making it in Tel Aviv, and Allegra is making it in London. We’re all doing this activity for the same reason, and the world doesn’t feel like such a scary place.

There’s a real value in having sustaining ritual. It’s a different way of practicing medicine.

Do you read other people’s food memoirs?

I love them—Anthony Bourdain, Peter Mayle, Ruth Reichl, Kathleen Flinn, Kate Christenson… I have several of Laurie Colwin’s books. But I didn’t see what I was doing as a food memoir at first. In fact, it wasn’t until after my manuscript was complete that I realized that what I had braided together—a memoir, a cookbook of sorts, and a self-help/how-to book—could fit into this category.

You grew up Reform, but in the book it’s clear you’re more observant now. Was that prompted by the challah?

I probably started inching towards it before then. My husband grew up keeping kosher, and when our kids were very little, we found Judaism such a wonderful framework for parenting. But what challah gave us was the ready-made Shabbat practice. When there’s fresh challah, it’s very easy.

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January 10, 2019 by

“And With All Your Might”

Screen Shot 2019-01-09 at 3.19.57 PM“And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might.” —Deuteronomy 6:5

It’s not the three miscarriages that have distanced me from God; the three miscarriages make me wish I weren’t already so distant. It’s hard to remember that the wheels of my traditionally observant Jewish life were set spinning 14 years ago by an intense sense of meaning and flow, that God’s presence in my life was a gift to be unwrapped in eager breaths. At the time, I was underfed and scrappy, shelving books at work while my former classmates returned to NYU as sophomores, but instead of anger at my circumstances I experienced delight. When the delight faded, when I felt too tired and broke and lonely, I leaned on the backup power of my own resolve. “This is the path you chose,” I reminded myself. “So walk it.”

The previous fall, as a freshman, was my first time (that I knew of ) in a synagogue. I went with a friend to Rosh Hashanah services in the city. The singing was in Hebrew, but even the English side of the prayer book felt foreign, with lots of language about kingship and judgment. My friend and I left early. No one said goodbye. My Jewish identity remained what it had been during my secular childhood in Houston: mine only in name. But over the summer, something began to shift. It started with a boy I had a crush on. One night, I stayed with a friend in Manhattan, and my whole body buzzed with a sense of the boy’s presence and levitra. He felt so close; I was certain I would see him. I left my friend’s apartment and started walking south on Fifth Avenue. I heard jazz floating from Washington Square Park, and walked towards the music. At the fountain in the middle of the park, there he was. Of course he was there. We sat side by side and I barely spoke, overwhelmed by what had happened.

Coincidences like this accumulated in my life, and with each one came pinpricks of faith. My thoughts swirled with ideas of purpose and soulmates and everything happens for a reason. Meanwhile, I was deciding to drop out of NYU, get a job, rent a room, establish New York residency, and eventually transfer to Hunter College, a city university that would cost me a fraction of the debt I incurred my freshman year. My crush eventually faded into a footnote while larger wheels continued turning.

That same summer, I met a young rabbi with a thick black beard. He was a former hippie; his name used to be Butterfly, and he met his wife at a Grateful Dead concert. Everything about our first interaction sparkled, and his previous name especially resonated: the butterfly is my personal symbol for my mom, who died when I was five. When the rabbi and I met, it was approaching the Hebrew month of Elul—the month of my birthday, the month leading up to the High Holy Days, and an incredibly spiritual time, I quickly learned from him. He overflowed with excitement that I was about to turn 19, because apparently 19 years is how long it takes for the Gregorian and Hebrew calendars to line up. This was clearly meant to be a new cycle for me, a new chapter.

The pinpricks of faith seemed to connect. It all felt right! During high school, when I was alone at my mom’s graveside for the very first time, I promised her that I would learn about my faith one day. This was the day. This was the year. This wacky spiritual guide who used to be a child actor—he sometimes burst into spontaneous songs from Oliver—was going to help me learn. I began going to Shabbat dinners every week at his home with his wife, their small kids, and students my age. He invited me to his class on the weekly Torah portion.

“Is there anything I should bring?” I asked.

“Just your Jewish soul,” he replied.

At the beginning of September, I moved from my cousins’ guest room in New Jersey to a Brooklyn room so tiny that I could stand in the middle and touch everything I had. I also started working at The Strand, a huge used bookstore in downtown Manhattan. This was years before they remodeled. Back then, the piles of books were thrown onto the floor, Sisyphus-like, as soon as the previous piles were shelved—and sometimes sooner.

To have enough time off to go to Rosh Hashanah services that fall, I doubled up day and night shifts, putting in overtime. On the morning of Rosh Hashanah, I woke up to the sound of my own singing. It was a wordless tune, but my soul bubbled to the surface, joyful and clear.

There’s spiritual magic and then there’s plain old contentment, a magic of its own. The year was a jumble of new friends and delicious Shabbat dinners, of willing myself to suddenly understand the Hebrew words in the prayer book, of buying my own groceries and learning how long it takes to hard-boil an egg. I was nostalgic about each experience even then, and basked in my new Jewish vocabulary. My father, far away in Houston, was pleased at first with my exploration of Judaism, and then a little concerned as I traveled past his expectations. But the train had left the station and I was aboard, grinning. “How was Jew night?” one of my coworkers at the Strand used to ask me on Saturday mornings, after my Shabbat evenings with my friends and my rabbi and his family. My answer was always the same. Jew night was great.

What strikes me now is how it all happened at once: faith and God and learning and friends and work and purpose and meaning. I wrote constantly, I did indeed establish New York residency and transfer to Hunter College (the first class I signed up for was Hebrew, of course), and while various other crushes came and went, I usually managed to enjoy the romanticism of being lovelorn and alone. Even being broke didn’t particularly haunt me. Shabbat was the only day all week that I had more than one dish at a meal. My friends and I were obsessed with the purple cabbage salad at the Rabbi’s house, and joked that purple salad was the reason we were becoming religious.

And before those Shabbat dinners, during the silent Amidah prayer that was near the end of services, my every cell would vibrate during the last paragraph. “Open my heart to Your Torah, and let my soul eagerly pursue Your commandments,” I read aloud in a whisper. Begged. I would place a hand on my heart—something I still sometimes do when I read that passage. “That Your beloved ones may be delivered, help with Your right hand and answer me. Do it for the sake of Your Name, do it for the sake of Your right hand, do it for the sake of Your Torah, do it for the sake of Your holiness. May the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable before You, Lord, my Strength and my Redeemer.”

I’m not sure what happened. Or rather, what un-happened. Over the years, I somehow muddled what I had so powerfully found. There was no one moment, no popping of a bubble. The beauty led to belief and the belief led to practice and the practice led to years-long waterfalls of angst. The process seems to have been cumulative: instead of one aspect replacing the other—practice replacing belief and angst replacing practice— everything seemed to be present at once, practice and hesitation and belief and doubt and angst and even moments of awe. As my father always says of his experience as an immigrant, I can’t return to how I was before, and I also haven’t been able to maintain a feeling of ease in my current life. Honestly, I’m embarrassed to catch up with my rabbi whom I still adore; convinced he’ll see immediately that somewhere along the way I lost track.

I can imagine him shouting into the phone now, all love and bravado: “You must reconnect with Hashem! This is the priority of your life and the world is depending on you. Take time off of work if you need to. Treat it like a romantic getaway. Talk to Hashem, just the two of you. Work on your communication skills. Do you understand? This whole thing means bupkis if you’re giving Hashem the silent treatment!”

One night a couple years ago, when I had only two miscarriages under my belt, I did consider my relationship to God. Though hesitant about a finite definition of God as the entity who spoke to Moses on Mount Sinai, I generally believe there is a being—or force, or energy, a source of good—behind the creation of the universe. But as my husband slept beside me and my thoughts rose into the darkness, I thought: maybe it’s all untrue. Maybe there is no God, and nothing happens for a reason. The bed dipped and swooned beneath me. It was like bungee-jumping, bouncing up and then falling again, my face inches away from vast emptiness.

No God meant no ultimate meaning behind any of creation, nothing to fully explain our bodies, or plants, or music, or the ocean, or art, or love. No source of goodness, just the bubbling of chemicals and the bustle of cells dividing, a miracle in its own right that seemed incomprehensible without a force behind it. That version of the universe seemed cold and random and completely unmoored. I couldn’t handle it.

Okay, I thought, let’s go back to believing there is a God.

Because my mom died so young, I used to say that I would never be upset about getting older, that I would treat each birthday as a blessing. I swore that I would be happy about every grey hair. And, mostly, I have been. What has come as a surprise, though, is the emotional distance I feel from myself at 19. I thought I would forever carry that year as a touchstone, that it would charge and recharge me, but these days it feels more like a glittery storybook with half the sequins rubbed off the cover. Was my sense of wonder and faith back then truly due to God’s revealed presence in my life? Or perhaps there is something about being 19 that comes with sequins in the first place, as well as the needle and thread to attach them at every turn.

It breaks my heart to parse the magic with skepticism, especially on the eve of trying to get pregnant again, when I could use some supernatural support. I’m terrified of a fourth miscarriage, of being a person who has had four miscarriages in a row. (Even three in a row feels untenable.) We are doing everything right medically; there have been tests and answers and results and questions that remain. Phrases that I associate with Christian faith like “praying on it” and “let go and let God” keep coming to mind as good ideas, yet I can’t seem to do either.

God, if I were to pray to you, really pray, it wouldn’t be for a baby. It would be for health. We learned that my risk of getting a blood clot is five times higher than it is for the average person, which may have been a contributing factor to the miscarriages. I think a lot these days about the strange gift of unveiling a potentially dangerous quirk of my blood, this vital part of my body that is almost always invisible to me. Whether or not my body brings a child into this world, I hope to be healthy and strong and able to live a long, long time.

When I reconsider my 19-year-old self, what makes me most jealous is that I was simultaneously in complete control of my life—while also deeply believing that there was a guiding force behind everything happening to me. Somehow those two parts jelled, and maybe it’s no coincidence that they jelled in the context of my new-found Jewish faith.

In contrast, I think about my experience a year ago on Rosh Hashanah—my anger at a never-ending cycle of prayer that sounds exactly the same every year. After one particularly tough morning during the holiday, I sobbed as I thought, I want my Judaism to be about more than Judaism. I want Judaism to reveal more than its own secrets. How can I open this lifestyle up so that it gives space and honor to more than the infinite loop of its own requirements? The meals, the services, the holidays, the sermons—they blend together, creating a world that feeds me and saps me at the same time. I show up and I pray, but at the same time, I know I’m not really showing up and I’m not really praying.

It’s lonely without God, who I imagine is vaguely around and half-listening, like a distracted businessperson on a long conference call. My rabbi’s voice whispers in my ear to remind me: “You’ve put yourself on mute.” But of course that’s not my rabbi’s voice. It’s my own.

Julie Sugar is a writer living in Los Angeles, California.


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January 10, 2019 by

Motherhood and Godliness

In my own 15 years of formal Jewish education, I had learned many of the Jewish concepts discussed by Mara Benjamin. But until I read this book, I never would have thought of them in relation to motherhood. After reading The Obligated Self (Indiana University Press, $30), I’ll never look in the same way at biblical “nurse- maids,” God’s ongoing frustration with/ love of the Jewish people, and the power that my children have over me at times. The Obligated Self is a profound example of how feminist thought can enrich and expand traditional Jewish concepts for today

“To be a parent is, in some sense, is to be a child’s God,” writes Benjamin. An inspirational, comforting, terrifying thought. Not necessarily the fist thing that would pop into a moth- er’s head while changing diapers, cleaning food off the floor or driving carpool. It’s possible that there are Jewish mothers out there who, while performing the many repetitive, messy, sometimes boring, rarely rewarded with-a-smile-or-a- thank-you tasks of motherhood, have pondered the Jewish thinkers. It’s possible they have asked, “I wonder what Maimonides/Heschel/Levinas would think of these daily acts of care I do for my children.” But I’d imagine these women are an uncommon bunch.

Yet as a thinking/tired/working/caring Jewish mother myself, I was profoundly moved by Mara Benjamin’s readable Jewish “ethic of care.” She shows how many of the daily, multifaceted acts of maternal caregiving relate to concepts of love, obligation, and com- munity—the very concepts that are so o en discussed by male Jewish thinkers in their theological musings on the relationship between Jews and God and Jews to the larger world. Benjamin’s aim is to show that ignoring the “reality of child-rearing, and the profound existential and ethical questions that arise for those immersed in it,” has produced a de cit in Jewish thought and philosophy. In a review of ancient and modern Jewish philosophical and theological writings that compares them with feminist theorists and theologians, Benjamin comes upon the parent as a God metaphor. She sends texts that describe the relation- ship between God and the people of Israel as the ones most evocative of women’s and mothers’ experiences. (Benjamin acknowledges that bearing children and caring for them is an experience that still disproportionately affects the lives of women.) Each chapter names a theme connecting mothers’ experiences and Jewish philosophical thought. The first chapter, “Obligation,” examines a mother’s ties to her children through responsibility, duty, and affection.

Benjamin then explores how this relationship can help us reassess the ideas of “commandment” in Jewish thought. Modern Jewish thinkers, responding to Enlightenment ideas, and Jews who became eager to shed the visible obligations of Judaism in exchange for almost-equal participation in civil society, reframed the traditional idea of Jews being commanded by or obligated to God. Instead, they posited, in a universal,abstract way,the concept of individuals obligated to each other in everyday relationships. Parents, Benjamin reminds us, are obligated to their specific children, not only for those universal needs for clothng, food, comfort but also for an individual child’s unique needs and demands. Mothers also experience agency—“the exercise of action within constraints”—in their experience of raising children. The rabbis of the Talmud, she notes, also understood Israel’s agency in accepting the obligation of the commandments and their relationship with God. She cites the famous midrash of how God held up Mount Sinai above the Israelites and threatened them with death if they didn’t accept the Torah.

Yet the end of the midrash states that the Jews later “upheld what they already accepted.” That is, they armed that they were previously obligated. Mothers, too, experience this agency—of having chosen to be both obligated and constrained. Benjamin describes the duality of this experience as being at times like “slavery (‘avdut’) and at times like service (‘avodah’).” In her chapter “Love,” Benjamin examines “overwhelming, debilitating, and transformative love for one’s child” in relation to biblical, rabbinic, and liturgical portrayals of God’s complicated love for the people of Israel. “Power” is not a term o en used by modern parents to describe their relationship with their children, but it’s there. In this particularly engaging chapter, Benjamin shows how maternal power, like divine power in the Bible and rabbinic sources, always involves some control and superiority.

However (as she reminds any parent who has been held hostage by a child’s tantrum or adamant refusal to go where the parent needs to go) one’s children also wield power in the parent-child relationship. And biblical and rabbinic texts that show God as “‘dependent’ on the recognition of Israel” acknowledge this. Yet Benjamin notes that in biblical and midrashic texts, God is depicted as suffering when the people of Israel sin, engage in violence, or are exiled, a parallel to the pain parents feel when their children act badly. “This vulnerability is the price of responsibility and involvement,” writes Benjamin.

A chapter provocatively titled “The Third” delves into the many other people in a mother’s life who help her to raise her child—teachers, paid caregivers, family members, and their analogs in biblical and rabbinic texts. Despite protestations about the primacy of the nuclear family, families from biblical times onward have always had help with childrearing, and these relationships must be honored. With “The Neighbor,” Benjamin argues that parental love, rather than limiting one’s responsibility to the outside world, actually expands it to reflect the commandment to “love one’s neighbor as oneself.” 

Susan Sapiro is a grant writer in Westchester County, NY, and reads and writes on motherhood, feminism, and Judaism.

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January 10, 2019 by

Before “Parenting”

I think Jennifer Traig wants to make us feel better. Parenting is, as she points out (very) frequently, hard. And she wants us to know that it always was. So much so that people do whatever they can to get out of it. And that’s a good thing, from an evolutionary point of view: kids demand more than they can get, and parents give less than they can offer, generally. And both sides come out okay. Most of the time. It turns out, as Traig chronicles in the first few chapters of Act Natural: A Cultural History of Misadventures in Parenting (HarperCollins, $26.99), that for much of human history most kids didn’t come out at all. In absence of reliable birth control and safe pregnancy- termination procedures, many more kids were born than could be supported and sustained.

Traig tells us all about the various techniques of neglect—benign and otherwise—that resulted from too many babies. Many had their desired effect: fewer kids to take care of, either because they were sent away to foundling houses or wet nurses, or simply abandoned, or because they just did not make it. And even those who did have the resources (scant or otherwise) to take care of their children barely did so. Babies were parked, tied, swaddled for days on end, or stood in the equivalent of stocks, and Men who parent get praised; women who parent can only ever fall short, though kids have survived no matter how they were raised. then left alone.

Parents simply didn’t parent their babies; even the use of the word as a verb is rather recent, as is the action it describes. This is a hugely ambitious book, spanning hundreds of years of history and almost as many parenting trends, fads, and perspectives. Traig tells us about out- sourcing and childbirth, advice manuals and diets, age expectations and sibling relationships, and discipline trends and children’s literature.

Her survey spans a wide swath of Western countries and religious approaches, with a clear mastery of Jewish- related topics and a rich sprinkling of Jewish anecdotes. The feminist tone is reassuringly clear; as much as any book about parenting can be empowering to women, this one is. That’s a heavy caveat though: while the term parenting, young as it might be, is meant to be inclusive, we all know that it really means mothering. Men who parent get praised; women who parent can only ever fall short, though not in Traig’s treatment, which does as much as it can to show us that through time kids have survived no matter how they were raised.

The one constant across the book is that every parenting framework is ever- changing. That should be reassuring: to date, no one has gotten it exactly right. Yesterday’s practical allocation of resources may be today’s abandonment, and last century’s effective discipline technique is today’s psychological torture. And maybe we don’t even have it all right today, but at least we can take comfort in the fact that others have certainly made our same mis- takes, and a whole lot of other ones besides. With a light touch, Traig takes on a pretty heavy topic. And while the jokey tone makes for quick reading, sometimes the judgment on the past feels harsh.

There isn’t a lot of the context we might need to understand why people were doing what they did. This can make it all too easy to simply laugh at the foibles of history. Traig is refreshingly willing to turn that same mocking approach on her own parenting, making readers feel like we’re all on the same team. No judgment here, at least not for today’s parents! But sometimes that willingness to laugh at herself is estranging, taking us outside the narrative of the book to question Traig a bit too often. For example, she explains the recent emergence of the term parent and the ways that parents in the past simply did not do that job. But she undercuts the real gravity and depth of work that she’s done by taking the joke too far:

“Most parents did not parent; the verb, and the concept, did not exist. Unlike us, I doubt they felt much guilt about it, much as my mail carrier doesn’t feel guilty for not mowing my lawn. It’s simply not his job, no matter how much I try to convince him it is.” No you don’t. At least, I really really hope not.

Thankfully, those moments are few and far between. At one point, Traig mentions that she’s not sure she’d take parenting advice from some of the women whose writing she’s read, but she’d love to go out with them for a beer. I think that might be true for me too: I’m not sure how much depth I got on parent- ing trends throughout history (though I learned a great deal of interesting anecdotal detail) but I’d love to go have a drink with Jennifer Traig. 

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September 27, 2018 by

When You Don’t Want to Be a Mother

“I think you’re in for a big burning,” a Tarot-card reader tells Sheila Heti, midway through her latest work, the semi-fictional Motherhood. At this point in the book, Heti is deep into the process of interrogating whether or not she wants a child. Is burning another word for “urge”? Or will it destroy her life? Is it necessary to destroy the life she has carefully constructed in order to get to another, better version, which may involve having a baby? 

36203362Heti’s book, which reads like a loosely organized journal, is a strange thing to come upon if you are, like me, about to turn 40. My own evaluation of having kids was over by the time I was in my early 30s. (I’m not doing it.) But Motherhood profoundly echoes what it’s really like to forego propriety, which women do when we challenge the idea that having children will offer us absolute satisfaction. 

Motherhood begins when Heti is 36, and ends on the cusp of her 40th birthday. In that time, she watches her body change—her once-regular period has started to vacillate, making her more frantic. All around her, her friends are having children and telling her that she should just do it. Heti has no desire for the maintenance of a child, she admits, but maybe that’s the only way she’ll repair the rift in her long-term relationship. Women do this all the time, apparently, according to her friends. A baby binds two people together as nothing else can.

“What if I’ve suppressed the desire for children so much that my desire is unrecognizable to me?” Heti wonders. In my copy of Motherhood, this line is underlined four times, and there’s a star in the margin in case it somehow managed to escape my attention. So much of the stickiness that comes with grappling with childfreeness, or anything that’s outside the mainstream, really, is considering the integrity of your own thoughts. Do you actually have the childbearing urge, but you’re ignoring it? Will it show up just in time for your fertility either to expire or become too much to deal with? And if it does, what will you do? Regret is the thing we’re supposed to be afraid of, regret that we missed out on the only experience we’re told will allow us to truly know love. And for a Jewish woman, descended from a Holocaust survivor, it’s compounded by an extra imperative: “Jewish women are expected to repopulate from the losses of the Holocaust. If you don’t have children, the Nazis will have won.” I have felt this… how can I imagine not having children, and selfishly contribute to our dying out?

You can’t undo it, though, the having kids. While Heti grapples with the fact that, without kids, without the traditional parameters of a life, it’s hard to measure success, she also fears losing the life she has made as a writer. Once you’ve gotten what you’ve wanted, do you cast it aside for something you only maybe kind of possibly want? Heti is not actually ambivalent about having kids. As someone who’s never been ambivalent, I’ll tell you: we can recognize our own. She doesn’t want children, which she admits, so the question throughout the book is really whether or not she’ll cram herself into a space where she genuinely doesn’t fit. There is a sturdy argument to be made that Motherhood isn’t just about deciding about the future of her womb, but about how we learn to mother ourselves. The relationship between Heti and her own mother exists in the shadow of Heti’s great-grandmother, who survived abject poverty and the Holocaust, and ultimately sacrificed her own future for her husband and children. Heti’s mother, a pathologist, marked Heti’s childhood with sadness that her daughter found mysterious, and Heti admits to being obsessed with redeeming her mother, looking for the source of that sadness, and freeing her from it, a task as impossible as it is foreboding.

Heti’s emotional state throughout the book is mercurial. She’s doing a lot of crying and fighting with her partner, and it’s not until she begins addressing her mental health issues with medication that things begin to calm down and she’s able to come to a final decision. It’s a solid turn from her previous stance of asking major questions like “What’s a better thing to steer your life by? Your values?” and leaving the answers up to the literal flip of a coin. Mothering ourselves means giving ourselves the best mother we can imagine, who tells us to pay attention to our instincts, to take care of ourselves, to be the architects of our own lives.

You don’t have to be questioning your childbearing intentions to engage with the relevance and power of Motherhood—anyone who’s ever had occasion to question the framework of normalcy as being rooted in the nuclear family can relate. If you happen to be in the tender space of realizing you don’t want what you’re supposed to desire the most, a word for how you might feel about this book is “grateful.”

Chanel Dubofsky is a writer in Brooklyn.

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