Published on January 24th, 2018 | by Elizabeth Beauvais0
BODY FULL OF STARS: An Interview with Molly Caro May on Motherhood, Rage, and Healing
I wish Molly Caro May’s second memoir Body Full of Stars had been written ten years ago when, after the birth of my twins, I thought I was going crazy. In a Tilt-a-Whirl of post-partum hormones, I became convinced, for about 4 and a half minutes, that my children would be better off if I left before they could remember me. I threw a flowerpot against the house, hopped in my car, and made it as far as the stop sign—in my nightgown—before realizing that maybe I should call my OB for some help. He calmly chuckled that’d he just been waiting for me to make that appointment, that so many new moms, especially mothers of multiples, experience a post-partum depression or anxiety and need help with hormones. He’d just been waiting? During my weekly high-risk prenatal visits, he never thought it might be important to say, “Oh hey, heads up: post-birth, you might think you are losing your nut. It’s totally normal. Just ring me up and we can get you help”? Nope.
Luckily, though, for new moms, expectant moms, or mothers like me healing older wounds, Molly Caro May does offer that message through the power of her shared story. In Body Full of Stars, May talks to readers like an old friend, laying out with arresting honesty her journey through a challenging pregnancy, a difficult birth, and year-long post-partum struggle with health issues like incontinence and premenstrual dysphoric disorder. While the rarely discussed, but surprisingly common, physical challenges are important to her narrative, the power of this book is in the candid reveal of a deep anger that gripped her as she sought to reclaim her health and energy. When I sat down with Molly to talk about her new book, we laughed about how MUTHA had matched us for the interview because of a recent essay I wrote on working mothers and rage. As writers, we’d been working the same beat. The “rage beat.”
May’s precise and poignant book is a gift to new moms who find themselves on the same assignment, unexpectedly. Moms who might be feeling isolated in their own Tilt-a-Whirl. Here’s our conversation. – Elizabeth Beauvais
MUTHA: Your first book, The Map of Enough, covered a far ranging external landscape, spanning the globe. In Body Full of Stars, your landscape is micro and deeply intimate. But both books deal with a mapping of the self—how did they relate or differ to you?
MOLLY CARO MAY: In my first book, I was exploring the theme of identity as place identity. That is, how people attach to or don’t attach to place. I was from a lot of places, so I didn’t have a home, but was in the business of finding one. At the time, I was spending a good bit of time alone, romping through the woods with a lot of freedom. So it felt very much like an individual book, but it was much harder to write. Body Full of Stars came out of me like a steam train, like it was building and waiting for the moment to be released, and it feels far more personal for me. Yet it also felt broader. I felt like I was channeling for a collective of mothers who’d experienced what I did.
MUTHA: Was processing through writing part of your healing?
MOLLY CARO MAY: Absolutely. I’ve always processed my life through writing. With this book, I went away for a 12-day residency and wrote my first draft. During that time, I rarely slept—I was walking, writing, and crying—getting it all out. It was physically powerful and very healing. I believe that when you write or tell a story, you transform it, and it did that for me. I do have some lingering anxiety about the energetic footprint this has. Specifically, that now there’s a book out there with my name on it alongside “female rage.” But I tell myself this is okay, because I know there is power in the shared experience, and I also know my own story isn’t static, it’s always changing.
MUTHA: What would you tell a new mother who’s overwhelmed with a newborn, a changed body and a flood of hormones?
MOLLY CARO MAY: The first thing I would say is “I hear you.” I would normalize it for her and tell her, “you are not alone; this is very common.” It would have really helped me if I had known or been told in way I could hear that this is something that will pass. It’s not going to last forever. Once your baby starts to sleep for longer stretches, or once you figure out breastfeeding, it does shift. Your marriage, your body, your energy comes back together and you feel yourself again. For me, I felt like it would never be the same, so it would have been encouraging to hear that message too.
MUTHA: The more you come to understand your own post-baby body and health issues—through struggle and forgiveness—the more you seem to expand and grow in relationship to your mother and your husband. Was this surprising for you?
MOLLY CARO MAY: Before being pregnant I had a sense that we go through passages that are meant to teach us in a larger way. So in that way, I wasn’t surprised. But because my mother was living so close to me during the year after my baby was born, many of my old childhood wounds came up all at once. It was a channel that we went through together, and it was very hard for us both, but now we are closer for it.
The more compassion I was able to give myself, the more I could shift and see the closest relationships around me with greater compassion and expansiveness. Part of my experience with motherhood is a call to softening. I laugh because that sometimes becomes my daily affirmation “Must Soften! Must Soften! Must Soften!” But you have to encourage softening softly, without forcing it. In moving through my anger, I took a little time to see what of that was healthy anger and calling me to action, and what part of it was misdirected at my husband and mom, as well as aimed back at myself.
MUTHA: In your book, you intersect chapters on your post-partum experience with the story of your coming of age in terms of beauty, femaleness, and sexuality. Why was important for you to tell the story this way?
MOLLY CARO MAY: I knew so much of what I was experiencing after my baby was born, both physically and psychologically, had roots in old stuff. I believe that old issues get lodged in the body and that my post-partum incontinence was directly linked to my emotional state. I couldn’t have told this story without telling about my coming of age as a woman, because they are related. I organized the book that way in part to give the reader a break from the intensity of the post-partum story. But I also did that because motherhood and birth is one of the gateways some women walk through in life, if they choose, and I wanted to contextualize that experience within the broader context of the other thresholds I had crossed.
MUTHA: Connecting with women relatives vertically, as through a lineage, is also an important theme. You wrote, “when I feel disgust towards my mother, I feel disgust toward myself.” How do you think understanding our mothers is related to understanding, loving, honoring and healing ourselves?
MOLLY CARO MAY: I think considering what we’ve inherited from our mothers and grandmothers is central to understanding and loving ourselves. My mother’s mother carried a lot of anger with her, and while I wasn’t very close to her or didn’t see her very much, I wrote that I felt like the anger I was feeling wasn’t just mine, it was coming down from her. People studying epigenetics discuss how trauma and resilience get passed down in our DNA. And now I am in a life stage that I feel like I have to transform and transmute some of that stuff in me because I don’t want pass it off to my two daughters.
MUTHA: Do you think your coming to terms with this change, this softening, require you to complicate your view of feminism and domesticity?
MOLLY CARO MAY: So much of it was about that—complicating it and finding a way to claim it for myself. My mom was always present for my siblings and me and didn’t work outside of the home. In addition, she was and is an amazing cook. I appreciated that, but I also had this firm idea of myself as not someone who is in the kitchen cooking for kids. Just like I didn’t want to be the lady who dresses up and goes to dinner parties to show herself off. I have a strong internal rebel. But what locked into place for me after having a baby was that it’s okay to make myself feel beautiful for me, it’s okay to cook a beautiful, delicious meal. And I was so pleasantly surprised to learn that I really like to do those things. Part of my healing process was about slowing down and getting back to basics—water, food, exercise—which is, essentially, very domestic. I really value that now.
MUTHA: There’s a tension in how you speak about anger that I think is true for many women. There’s an unease in holding it, exposing or expressing it—you call it a luxury at one point—and yet, there is also a demanding need to have it seen, heard and validated. Ursula LeGuin discusses in No Time to Spare: Thinking about What Matters how anger can be both corrosive inside, if we never reveal it, and corrosive outside, if we nurture it into a habit. Where have you come to understand your own boundaries around anger?
MOLLY CARO MAY: I will always be someone who expresses what I feel. What I’m learning is that the way I say it and how I say it is really important. I grew up in a world where women were silenced. As a young adult, I thought, “F- that! I am going to say whatever I want, whenever I want!” Now, I’m learning this art of grace. The journey I describe in Body Full of Stars has taught me that sometimes, I get the better outcome for myself if I take a moment, beat my fist on the ground, work it through my own body, and then come back and say, “Okay, let’s have a conversation.” This is very hard for me to do. I can have an argument for hours, and can even derive energy from it. But I am starting to understand now that there is a certain addiction there. My neurons have fired that way so many times before that I can be a little too comfortable doing that. So I am learning to pave new pathways in my brain and in my emotional body around how I move through the rage and anger and bring it to light in a different, more measured way. It can’t be about suppressing or stuffing down the anger, it has a purpose for all of us. But it’s also not healthy to feed it through too much attention. It’s simply not healthy for the body to be amped all the time.
The other real blessing for me is learning now, when my daughter is 4 ½ and I’m having to teach her to manage her emotions. I’ll tell her, “it’s okay to mad, it’s okay to be grumpy, but you cannot hit. You can go hit a pillow in your bedroom, but you can’t hit me.” In that process of learning of how best to coach my daughter about anger management, I’m learning myself.
MUTHA: You had a second baby just about a year ago. How was your second birth and post-partum experience?
MOLLY CARO MAY: My second daughter’s birth was very smooth and fast—I was only in labor an hour and a half and was able to have a water birth. I had also been a parent before, so the newborn transition was less of a shock. I was really sailing through the first six months, but then sleep deprivation began in earnest with our daughter and that changed everything. I went through a couple of months feeling all over the place again, with my hormones in flux, the anger resurfacing. I even had a moment a few weeks ago when I was upset with my husband and thought, “I’m just going to get in the car and drive away. Just drive away. See how he deals with things then.” I know, now, when this fantasy thought crosses my mind, that’s a signal that I’m close to going off a deep end and need to look around at all my buckets—sleep, exercise, food—and figure out which one needs to get filled. Knowing this about myself has become really important, and so even in tough moments, this post-partum period has been qualitatively different for me.
MUTHA: In your book, you seem to move between a sense of needing to bootstrap your own health issues and the desire to ask for help. And in space between the two, there’s despair and rage. I’ve been there myself. Do you think there are inevitable growing pains for most new moms as they shift into being caregivers for their children, while still having to care for themselves?
MOLLY CARO MAY: Yes, big time. The word “despair” feels really accurate. I’m still struggling with this push-pull around self-care. When you are new mom, there are a thousand things happening that are new and challenging, and then you throw in something extra like pelvic floor exercises, or whatever a woman needs to do to heal her body and it can feel overwhelming. And for me, it was overwhelming because I was thinking maybe I’m never going to heal and so what’s the point, and I’m so angry I have to do this anyway.
But you know, my midwives told me early on that if the mom is doing well, the whole family is doing well. It took me awhile to really understand how true that is. Now that my first child is older, I’m very inspired by modeling for her. I will tell her, “Papa’s going to give you breakfast and I’m going to exercise for 2 hours and then I’ll come back with more energy for you later in the day.” That sort of thing helps me and gives me a back door into my own self-care.
MUTHA: So by helping her you are helping you?
MOLLY CARO MAY: Yes. We all have to find our own way to it, and it’s not easy. So often you hear people talk about how important self-care is for new moms. But then there’s the reality of fitting it in, finding time for it. For me this felt exhausting. It would take an hour and a half for me to get my baby to fall asleep for her nap and then all I wanted to do was eat bread. I was too physically tired and mentally overwhelmed to do anything else.
MUTHA: That’s true so many new moms don’t have the time or resources to get out for exercise or time with friends, but there’s also an element that strikes me as deeply psychological. How long does it really take me to swallow a vitamin or call a friend for 5 minutes or meditate for ten? Yet I will resist in way that’s surprising to me because I never thought of myself as someone who will take care of everyone else before me. Was this something you wrestled with learning how to take care of yourself post baby?
MOLLY CARO MAY: Overcoming a psychological barrier was a big piece of it. There were definitely some self-sabotaging tools I didn’t know I had. But when I think about it, I realize that that had been modeled for me. As it probably has been for so many women. Even though we grew up in this era of “You can have it all” —I would bet many of our moms sacrificed themselves. It’s such a deeply patterned part of our culture that you even see in the way women tend to be more adept at multitasking. My husband is pretty quick to say, “I’m going to go take care of myself and exercise and if I don’t see the girls today, that’s okay.” He has a different relationship with his own self-care than I do, and it’s a lot of work for me to shift and evolve that for myself.
MUTHA: At the end of Body Full of Stars, after discussing the different ways grief and disappointment and shame have affected how we think of our post-baby bodies, you seem to make a decision: “Okay, I will celebrate this body I have.” Did it feel, in the end, intentional? Like a line you chose to step over?
MOLLY CARO MAY: It did. It’s a daily decision, especially after having had a second child. I have a saying taped to my fridge that reads, “pleasure, what we celebrate expands.” One of my new goals is to bring more celebration to my life, for all things, as they are. I think there is a direct correlation between what we appreciate and where we derive joy. If I am celebrating and appreciating my pinky finger, my pinky finger does better things. In the years before I had kids, I would walk through the forest and say, “my legs are strong, my legs are beautiful.” And it changed my legs. Actually changed them, because there was this different energy being shared there.
MUTHA: So, what’s in your nightstand reading stack that you are enjoying?
MOLLY CARO MAY: I’m reading Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi and Becoming Wise by Krista Tippett. I’m dipping into The Conscious Parent by Dr. Shefalu Tsabary and am also really interested in Move Your DNA by Katy Bowman.
MUTHA: What are you working on next?
MOLLY CARO MAY: You know, after writing two memoirs, I feel drained of words. I feel as though I’ve excavated everything I have up to this moment. I do have a deep interest in what’s called the Natural Movement that I believe will take me towards my next creative project. I’m curious about what it means to be a writer and not write on a computer. I have a lot of questions and even concerns about technology and social media that I’d like to explore in thinking about where I feel a real resistance to it, even while appreciating it connects everyone. In living and writing Body Full of Stars, I learned to trust myself, my feelings, my body, the ebb and flow cycle of things. I’m in a more limnal dreamy space right now and I’m trusting that’s where I need to be. That’s a gift to me.