This review first appeared on The Spinoff on 9 April 2019
Before the current bumper crop of radically honest books about motherhood, there was Marie Darrieussecq. Eighteen years ago in Paris, she sat at her desk, notebook open, her baby resting face down on her lap. She let him suckle on the fingers of her left hand; in this position she could hold a pen in her right hand.
“As soon as I am sensible enough to allow myself to go to the cinema while he is being minded,” she wrote, “instead of working or cooking, trying to be productive – I will go and see the film by Dominique Cabrera, The Milk of Human Kindness, about the woman who runs away from her newborn baby.”
So much that usually goes unsaid is articulated in that one sentence. The obliteration of self. The prioritising of others. The yearning for escape. The unthinkable taboo of leaving your child.
A few lines like this, perhaps one or two hundred words, then the baby needs something, and she abandons her notebook again.
The Baby is the product of those notebooks, chronicling roughly the first year of her son’s life. This is “writing generated by its own constraints,” as Darrieussecq notes; “the baby’s cries slice through these pages, from paragraph to paragraph.” The result is a fragmentary meditation on the mind-altering experience of new motherhood: the overwhelming, intoxicating love, the deliciousness of a newborn baby, the sensuality of breastfeeding, but also the relentless work, the judgement of society, the loss of self and the reduction of one’s complex personhood into a two-dimensional archetype: the “mother.”
Darrieussecq was already an established novelist when The Baby was first published in French in 2002. Remarkably, it has taken until now for an English translation. Australian publishing company Text has brought out this edition – you can tell it’s an Australian translation because the word “duvet” is translated as “doona” – and the timing is appropriate. In 2019, The Baby joins a recent crop of English-language books giving motherhood the frank, raw, literary treatment. Books like Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts (2015), a remarkable, fragmented account of poet and critic Nelson’s pregnancy and labour, as well as a love-letter to her gender-fluid partner Harry Dodge. Or UK poet Hollie McNish’s mixed memoir/poetry folio, Nobody Told Me (2016), a chronological account, in verse and diary form, of her first three years as a mother (McNish was interviewed for The Spinoff last year). Or even Sheila Heti’s Motherhood (2018) – not, in fact, an account of motherhood, but of novelist Heti’s agonising, circular conversations with herself about whether to have a child.
Central to all these works is a question many women find themselves urgently trying to answer when they reach a certain crossroads: can I be a mother, and still be myself?
It’s a question that takes many of us by surprise. “Our lifestyle won’t change,” my partner and I confidently told each other in our 1976 Mini Austin Clubman one day when I was pregnant with our first daughter, driving home from visiting friends with children, shell-shocked by the vision of what might await us. “The baby will learn to fit around us.”
“It’s like I don’t have a self anymore,” I told him a few months later, driving the same section of coastline in our recently-purchased 2007 Toyota Corolla Fielder, our newborn screaming in her capsule in the backseat. “Every part of my life is about her now.”
(Later, I came across these lines from poet Alice Notley: “he is born and I am undone – feel as if I will / never be, was never born. // Two years later I obliterate myself again / having another child… for two years there’s no me here.”)
They do that, babies, rearrange your life, reset your priorities. “The idea of dying used to annoy me because I had books to write,” writes Darrieussecq. “Now I would be furious to leave him alone without getting to know him better.” Then a crucial addition: “These two visions of death are not contradictory; they complement each other.”
This is central to Darrieussecq’s project in The Baby: to bring her new identity as a mother into conversation with her identity as a writer, to combine them, to use her writer’s skill to interrogate the experience of motherhood, to make mothers and babies the subject of serious literary investigation.
“The happiness of writing, the happiness of being with the baby: neither happiness is opposed to the other. Still, the insidious little refrain whines inside me: ‘One cannot be an intellectual and a good mother’, one cannot think and dote on children,” she muses, thanking “Saint de Beauvoir” for the dilemma.
(Simone de Beauvoir was famously suspicious of society’s construction of motherhood, describing it once in an interview with fellow feminist Betty Friedan as “a way of forcing women in a certain direction.” She concluded that to “destroy the concept of motherhood” was the most revolutionary act a woman could perform. Which is all very well, until you have a baby in front of you who needs feeding, changing, and rocking to sleep.)
Books like Darrieussecq’s and the recent crop are a firm rejoinder: of course mothers can think, write, and have rich interior lives. But the world’s recognition of this fact requires a greater openness to certain forms and subjects. After the birth of her son, Darrieusscq finds herself constantly being asked versions of the same question – whether she prefers her baby or her work. Frustrated, she responds that they are one and the same: “food, nappies, breasts, the exhaustion of everyday life […] is what those asking that question will also read about in these pages of mine.”
I’ve been seeking out these books telling motherhood like it is for years now, funny, tender books like Emily Writes’ Rants in the Dark (2017), as well as angry, urgent ones like Elisa Albert’s After Birth (2015). With most, I felt nothing but grateful recognition at the truths they revealed. Some, like Nelson’s, stretched the boundaries of my relatable experience (I’ve never been pregnant while also supporting a gender-fluid partner through top surgery), but I saw how her disclosures opened space for a different, better conversation that more people could be part of. For much of The Baby, I felt these same responses, but there were moments when Darrieussecq left me behind.
All mothers will recognise the discomfort of being tutted at in the street by well-meaning strangers who think your baby is too cold, or that you’re doing something wrong, but like those busy-bodies, I prickled with judgement when Darrieussecq described her son screaming at an outdoor café during his first outing in a pram: “A woman at the next table leaned over the pram. ‘Poor little thing,’ she muttered. A disapproving waitress brought me my beer. I stubbed out my cigarette.” The beer I could forgive, but the cigarette?
Then she did some judging of her own: “I know an eighteen-month-old child who takes it upon himself to lift up his mother’s clothes to suck on her breasts. The arrogance of this little boy, the manners he has missed out on in his learning and the consequent damage he suffers, the humiliation of the mother who is devoured by her son in public – it all disgusts me.”
My eighteen-month-old does that to me all the time. I feel neither humiliated nor devoured. At the suggestion that I should, I was inclined to dismiss Darrieussecq as exactly the kind of judgemental stranger she had earlier complained about. Yet, in committing both passages to print, she was faithfully enacting her commitment “to say the unsaid,” willing to both expose herself to the judgement of others, and to show that she herself is judgemental. In this way she brings the full spectrum of her humanity to her mothering and her writing. I admired her for that.
But still she kept nudging the line. In Mothers: An Essay on Love and Cruelty, British cultural critic Jacqueline Rose considers why there have been so few artistic representations of the erotic love between mother and child – erotic in the sense of passionate, sensual love, as opposed to overtly sexual. She searches for literary descriptions of the pleasure of breastfeeding, for example, and argues that society’s extreme discomfort with the idea of breastfeeding as pleasant as well as practical drives campaigns to keep breastfeeding out of public spaces.
The Baby is full of beautiful, sensual descriptions of this bodily love between mother and child: snuggling warm under blankets to feed, kissing rolls of soft baby flesh, boundaries between mother and child dissolving. I was right there with her, and then I read this: “Now I understand incest, how a person gently slides from languorous cuddle into passion for the baby. And I understand the need for the law.”
And there she lost me. Of course, I know – and Darrieussecq points out clearly – that she would never act on such an impulse, but her commitment to telling the truth of her experience means she will record it. I admired her commitment to say the unsayable, but I just couldn’t walk with her into that understanding.
(On this point, I’m with Maggie Nelson: “I have my baby, and my baby has me. It is a buoyant eros, an eros without teleology. Even if I do feel turned on while I’m breastfeeding or rocking him to sleep, I don’t feel the need to do anything about it (and if I did, it wouldn’t be with him).”)
So, the limits of my understanding had been revealed, perhaps for the first time in a frank motherhood memoir, of which I’ve read so many now. Still, I have to hand it to Darriessecq: all these English language writers in the last five years or so, patiently carving out space for each other to say more and more about what it’s really like to become a mother, tip-toeing towards the abyss, and it turns out Darrieussecq had long since plunged right over the edge. If only we’d had this translation sooner.
In fact, the long-delayed translation turned out to be strangely resonant, especially for me reading and reviewing this book in New Zealand, in March 2019.
During the period chronicled in The Baby, Darrieussecq watches in numb shock as the twin towers of the World Trade Center fall, her baby, as ever, on her lap. She has “an uneasy, unreal thought: knowing that the baby will never see those towers, other than perhaps as the symbol, the symbolic ruin, of something I’m not yet aware of.”
I’ve watched in the last two weeks as my daughters run around, largely oblivious to the shock and grief of their parents and community at the events in Christchurch on 15 March, in some strange way traceable to that moment when the towers fell. Knowing that the country they will grow up in will be different as a result of those events, not knowing quite how.
Once you have children of your own, you feel the world’s suffering more keenly. “Now, watching television,” writes Darrieussecq in The Baby, “when I see a woman holding a baby in her arms, walking along a road in a war-torn country, I wonder if she has been able to feed him, if she has been able to change him. I know that’s what she’ll be thinking about. … To have to leave her home, with the crying baby, who will soon cry with hunger. Who will have nowhere to rest. Who will fall sick. To have to be the baby’s home, without any help, without any magic.”
One criticism of the recent glut of motherhood books has been how damn white they all are. The Baby is no exception: it even includes several meditations precisely on the milky whiteness of her baby’s skin: not a universal observation. My own reading on the topic of motherhood has a similar tendency to sameness unless I consciously check and diversify. To read widely and diversely, to understand a range of perspectives and experiences: this work now feels more important than ever.
But still, there might be something universal in motherhood to which we can usefully return. As radically different as our concerns as mothers can be, depending on our culture, religion, ethnicity, and privilege, isn’t there a ringing in the bones in Darrieussecq’s passage above, of what it means to be responsible for a tiny human life? When will I feed her? Where will I change her? Where will she sleep? To have to be the baby’s home, without any help, without any magic. Feeling that spark of understanding, and reaching out to help another mother. Perhaps that could be the help. Perhaps that could be the magic.