July 31, 2018
"It's almost like dying," Laura June tells me over the phone, searching for the right metaphor for what she says is the "extremely common, important life stage," otherwise known as motherhood, and the difficulties of finding good writing about it. We're talking a few weeks ahead of the release of her memoir, Now My Heart Is Full, a sensitive, tender account of Laura's experience not only of parenting her daughter, Zelda, but also of coming to terms with her relationship to her own mother, an alcoholic, from whom Laura was estranged, and who died years before Zelda was born. And though the book is full of many heartbreaking moments, primarily having to do with Laura's mother's struggle with addiction, it is also full of countless life-affirming experiences, especially Laura's love for her daughter, but also related to the ways in which she comes to terms with the complicated legacy she inherited from her mother.
It is Laura's refusal to flinch from difficult topics—not only addiction, but also abortion, marital issues, and feelings of isolation—that make the book feel so quietly revelatory; these are the things you know happen in your life, and you know happen in other people's lives, but despite their universality, it rarely feels like they're being talked about anywhere other than behind closed doors.
Which brings us back to that dying metaphor. Just as everyone dies, Laura says, for women, motherhood, while "not nearly universal, is more common than not." And yet women are expected to go through this really common, but profoundly challenging life stage without a roadmap, or at least advice from our predecessors. Laura says, "Most women have children. My mother did it, my grandmother did it, and this is the reason I felt very confused when I had my daughter. I was like, This is really hard. Why didn't anyone ever say anything about it? It's almost like dying, because you don't know what it's like until it's happening to you. But you can't write about dying, because you're dead, but there is definitely advice that can be passed on to other women."
The recent spate of motherhood narratives, both fictional and non-, are going a long way toward rectifying this absence of advice, but it remains surprising that their presence is a relatively new phenomenon, because most everyone has a mother, and most every woman at least thinks about having children—even if those thoughts only lead to a decision to avoid parenthood. This is exactly what makes these stories so vital; unlike parenting memoirs or novels of the past, there is little that's prescriptive about these newest iterations, and they're not intended to be aspirational. They are, instead, messy and complicated—they are full.
When Laura had her daughter, Zelda, she was 36 years old and had been married for nearly seven years. She writes in the book, "In that moment of my daughter's birth... I thought of my mother"; Laura thought, "I wish my mother was here." Her mother had died seven years before, from complications of her alcoholism, and Laura had been estranged from her for some time before that. In the years that followed Zelda's birth (Zelda is now four), Laura began writing about her experience as a mother, first for The Awl and then for New York magazine's The Cut. I read her work from the beginning; what always stood out to me about her writing was how clear her respect for her daughter's agency was, even when Zelda was still a baby. This might sound like a little thing, this treatment of a person as a person, but it is more rare in parenting writing than you'd think. But, Laura tells me, Zelda "was a human to me from the start... I couldn't really abstract her out. I was aware of her as a real person from very early on. Probably everyone sort of feels that way [about their child], but I'm very acutely aware of her distinctness."
No matter her age, a woman's distinctness, her identity, is a complicated thing, and its integrity is challenged—even assaulted—in myriad ways from birth and onward. Historically, we've been expected to go from being someone's daughter to someone's girlfriend to someone's wife to someone's mother. Historically, we are given the name of our father at birth and expected to take the name of our husband when we marry. Historically, many women, upon becoming mothers, are then referred to simply as "mother" or "mom" from then on. Many of these traditions have changed in recent years: Few women are called "mother" by their spouse anymore, and more and more women are choosing to keep their original last names when—or if—they even get married at all. And by the time women have children, if they do, they've often already established careers for themselves and made clear that they have an identity uniquely their own, one which cannot be challenged by the mere fact of being romantically partnered with another person.
And yet having a child is another matter—it is one of the few things which still has the potential to shake a woman's sense of self, to challenge the idea she has of who she is, of what she's worth. In fact, perhaps it is precisely because women are partnering up and have children at later and later ages, taking more time beforehand to establish who they are, to the world and to themselves, that having a child completely messes everything up. In all other areas of their lives, women have figured out how to maintain their agency and identity—they keep their names, they assert themselves and pursue their desires. But motherhood is different, suddenly your life is lived in service of someone else. Whether or not you gave birth to your child, you are now inextricably bound to them, your schedule adapts to theirs, your life and heart expand to include them, and sometimes it can be difficult to maintain your own identity in the process.
"Probably to some extent every woman in the first three months to two years [after having a child] experiences extreme identity dysmorphia," Laura tells me, explaining her own challenges after Zelda's birth. "I'm mostly very stoic, and I'm not a complainer and I like to do a good job, so I was taking on all these extra new things, but I felt overwhelmed internally. And I think that's normal, and that's the reason I started writing about [parenting], because I don't think it has to be that way. It has to be difficult, because your entire life has to change, but it doesn't have to be isolating. And that's why I started writing about it, because you lose not just your sense of identity, but of reality, at first."
What Laura found when writing about her daughter was an audience comprising other mothers, like herself, but also something much broader; she says to me, "I do think there's a way to write about [parenting] where it can be interesting to people who don't give a shit about kids or don't want to be a parent ever, and that's one of the things I found nice. I got notes from a 23-year-old who didn't have kids. Or from, like, guys. I just felt like, I'm writing about motherhood, but that's not what it's about, it's about being a human being."
Inevitably, as Laura continued to write about the very human experience of raising her daughter and being a mother, she began to think more and more about her own mother and their relationship, and it became clear that the dual relationships would become the basis for her memoir. And yet, as Laura says, her editor had to ask her, "Are you prepared for how hard this will be?" Laura says, "I had written around my mom in years. I had mentioned her, but it was very much in passing." But Laura told her editor, "Of course, I'm not afraid of anything." Which, she tells me: "Is true!" However, what she had to confront when writing about identity and relationships and acts of love was that her mother's identity was forever stamped by her addiction. Laura says, "The only identity that was inescapable for my mother was that she was an alcoholic. That trumps everything else around her. It does not need to be the most important thing about you, but for the people around you, it trumps everything else. If you're the kind of alcoholic that my mom was, that's going to permanently impress itself around the people who love you most. And I knew that would be really hard to write about honestly and how it affected me, because it definitely molded the person who I am."
There is much that is hard to read about Laura's mother, and the effect her disease had on her Laura and everyone else in her life (Laura has three brothers; all four siblings were born by the time their mother was 29). But it is also clear that, despite her addiction, Laura's mother—Kathy—loved her children, and she had many moments of being a supportive, caring mother. And this was one of the things Laura wanted to explore; she wanted to avoid writing "disaster porn" and also, she says, "I really loved my mother. I didn't want to write around her anymore. I wanted to be honest, but I also wanted to approach it the way I approached my relationship to Zelda. I wanted to present it the way it was, which was really complicated. So I tried to strike a balance between being honest about how badly she hurt me, and... I tried to be gracious and generous with her."
That generosity is present in the way Laura considers the difference between her own experience with motherhood and that of her mother's; she says of writing the book: "One of my drives to explore my mother and my daughter, is that I wanted to know my mother better as a person. It's not really possible for a teenager to know their parents as people, and you only sort of know that as an adult, but because I didn't have a relationship with my mother as I grew into an adult she still seemed very mysterious to me, even though she probably wasn't. But that was intensely tied to identity, because I saw her as a mother. Only as I became an adult and a mother and a person with a career did I think, My mother was really smart, maybe she really regretted not having a career. She definitely wasn't the sort of person who only saw herself as a mother or as a wife, and my mother always raised me to feel very distinct, as well. For all of her weaknesses as she aged, I felt very sure of myself growing up. She gave me the ability to be sure of who I was."
And perhaps this is the gift that all of these motherhood narratives are giving women—the ability to tell the world who they are, and stake a claim to whatever identity they choose to inhabit, no matter who anyone else tells them to be. In Now My Heart Is Full, Laura June embraces the joyous parts of her life, refuses to shy away from the difficulties, and never sentimentalizes either the beautiful or ugly parts of being alive. This type of clarity feels necessary for casting off the stigma associated with things like addiction, yes, but also with simply being a woman who is navigating difficult times. It is an assertion of identity, of a woman who knows the world does not exist in black-and-white, but also knows that our only hope of recovery is in identifying the problems and talking through them. Laura tells me, "The fascinating part of [writing it] was exploring addiction and shame, to break that cycle down for my daughter so she wouldn't have to be confused or ashamed. By the time I was finished, I was really ready to move on." These motherhood stories then, aren't simply ones we tell ourselves in order to live, but are instead what we tell each other, tell future generations, in order to understand what it means to be alive, to be ourselves, and to keep going forward, hearts full, looking ahead, ready to move on.
BY KRISTIN IVERSEN
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