Published on July 18th, 2019 | by Meg Lemke0
“The Shock of It”: An Interview with Polly Rosenwaike On Motherhood Fiction
Among all the little odd bits that have been different for me about having a second baby was that this time, post-partum, I’d won just enough margin of experience that I was able to read. With my daughter, the overwhelm (and ridiculous nursing issues) was such that I sufficed on streaming the most easily paused TV programs, 30 Rock and Red Dwarf (please watch this if you haven’t). With my second baby, sure, we still had feeding issues, and ample sobbing, but I somehow balanced a book above the flailing. That meant I was myself, still, and made so much difference.
One of the best things I read in my son’s earliest marathon nursing sessions were the galleys for Polly Rosenwaike‘s Look How Happy I’m Making You. Short stories (perfect) about attempting, avoiding, and accepting motherhood. Little gems cut sharp.
I had wanted so much to go back in time, to the me that was when my first baby showed up, to replay. And that’s what Rosenwaike writes about: it’s a transition so specific, and you can’t ever go back.
And belatedly, as these things go with the having of children, I got to talk to her about how she came to mine the material of everything from mom-envy, infertility, and baby food to (even) darker fears in her fiction. Get it. – Meg Lemke
MUTHA: How many kids do you have? Did you start these stories after they showed up, or before?
POLLY ROSENWAIKE: My two daughters are now eight and five—lovely ages I dreamed of when I was stuck in the baby years. (Not that babies aren’t precious, but they’re also really rough, at least for me.) I’d written drafts of three of the stories in the collection before my first daughter was born. When she was a year old and I returned to writing fiction, I was intent on trying to articulate some of the challenges of pregnancy and that first year of becoming a mother. I wrote a few more stories. My partner and I wanted another child, but I was dreading going through childbirth and having an infant again. Reflecting on that time through fiction kept me going.
MUTHA: The devil is in the details in these pieces; what I loved was the specificity of that one baby food book, the brands, the exact same conversations I’ve had… Tell me about how you’ve kept track of these little moments.
POLLY ROSENWAIKE: The character Tracy in my story “Welcome to Your Family” is a high school English teacher, and she tells her students that details are everything, that without details, you can’t expect people to care about what you say. I agree, and so I spend what sometimes seems like a ridiculous amount of time trying to come up with good details. When it came to the particulars of baby stuff, some things were right on hand, like that Super Baby Food book you mention that tortures the reluctant new mother Serena, in “Love Bug, Sweetie Dear, Pumpkin Pie, Etc.” It sat on a bookshelf in my dining room, taunting me with its bright purple cover and its nutritious recipes that I didn’t feel like making. In pursuit of other details, I went online in the name of research. In “Ten Warning Signs of Postpartum Depression,” for instance, I wanted to show how attending a gathering of other breastfeeding mothers makes the main character feel even more depressed and alone. One of the women mentions putting her baby in a swing, and it seemed important to give the name of the particular swing, because that’s something new mothers chat about a lot—the particular products that will hopefully make their lives easier. When I found the Fisher-Price My Little Snugapuppy Cradle ’n Swing on Amazon, it sounded perfect—not to buy, but to use to express the contrast between the cuteness of babydom and the dark emotions in the story.
MUTHA: What blurry occurred to me, as I nursed my second baby while reading this book, is that all the stories are about first children—or the attempt to get pregnant, or contemplate it, etc. What is it about that first time? Because it is, as we were all told, actually different (you can’t go back again, I have tried here, you can’t).
POLLY ROSENWAIKE: Yes, I deliberately limited the stories to the experience of having a child for the first time. The transition to motherhood, the shock of it—even if you tried to be ready and thought you knew what to expect—is what I wanted to explore. There’s that saying about how having two kids is more than twice as hard as one, but in my case, I didn’t wish to go back to what it was like the first time. Though the challenges of trying to tend to a three-year-old while I also had an infant were very real, I found it so much easier to already be accustomed to what having a baby was like that second time around. And the great thing was that my older daughter was absolutely thrilled to have a little sister. The intense isolation I felt the first time, and which I wanted to get at in the book, wasn’t quite there when I had a little girl at my side who thought a new baby in the house was the most wonderful thing.
MUTHA: Who are your mother-writer mentors and inspirations?
POLLY ROSENWAIKE: I’m grateful to have so many! Just to mention a few fantastic books—nonfiction and fiction—that have arrived in the last few years, there’s Angela Garbes’ Like a Mother, Kim Brooks’ Small Animals, Meaghan O’Connell’s And Now We Have Everything, Shanthi Sekaran’s Lucky Boy, and Lauren Groff’s Florida. Recent essays about motherhood I’ve loved include that wonderful piece by Desiree Cooper that you published, Rachel Cusk in The New York Times, Heather Abel in The Paris Review, and lots of work by Lydia Kiesling. The Mom Rage podcast that Edan Lepucki and Amelia Morris have brilliantly created has accompanied me through many a domestic chore. And I’m enjoying Jessica Grose’s new parenting site in The New York Times.
MUTHA: There is a certain cultural moment happening now with literary motherhood books—and group reviews of them in The Paris Review—is this exciting or do you feel in a crowded room? (Spoiler: I’m excited.)
POLLY ROSENWAIKE: I’m excited too—it should be a crowded room. A crowded room is what we want because it means motherhood is being taken more seriously as a literary subject, and that women’s experiences as mothers (or their experiences choosing not to be mothers) are being represented in a more complex, diverse, and aesthetically rich way.
MUTHA: Your stories go right to the greatest fears for pregnant folks: abandonment, miscarriage, SIDS. There’s a Charles D’Ambrosio story where a toddler girl drowns in a pool of water—“Jacinta”—I think of it constantly. Now (including while I’ve been putting this current baby down), some of your pieces have filled my mind. What was it like to write to these places? Why go there?
POLLY ROSENWAIKE: I’m having an interesting reaction to this, because hearing about that D’Ambrosio story, which I haven’t read, I’m thinking, hmm, probably best to skip that one. But I imagine that if I’d read and admired it, I wouldn’t regret it, that having the story in my head would be good. It might make me sad, it might remind me that the world is full of danger and life is fragile, but the trade-off for that, to my mind, is that literature makes us feel more alive, more alert to the beauty, and curiosity, and yes, terror, of being here. When I taught college students, they would sometimes complain that the readings I assigned them were depressing, and my hope was to convince them that though the subject matter might be dark, the writers’ ability to articulate difficult things in an artful way was affirming, a joy to behold.
In writing about some of the painful aspects of pregnancy and parenthood, my goal was to be honest about the trials and complications of these experiences. I find it depressing when pregnancy and motherhood are represented in simplistic and cutesy ways, because that feels fake to me, and sometimes anti-feminist. At times I dreaded writing the painful things in these stories, but it was cathartic too. I could focus on issues of craft, rather than the thing itself. I could focus on how I was going to try to solve problems of character and structure and language, rather than wallowing in raw emotion. That’s one of the great things about writing, and really, about a lot of different kinds of work that people do. Faced with forces and circumstances we can’t control, we can put our mental energy and creativity toward wrestling with particular problems, with doing what we can, according to the skills we’ve worked hard to develop.
MUTHA: Let’s talk childcare: When do you write, and how did that change after you had kids?
POLLY ROSENWAIKE: I write best in the morning, though I’ve never been one of those people who can wake up early to write. Having to get up before dawn with babies was brutal, and you can’t very well tell them this isn’t suiting your internal rhythms. My ideal is to write for a few hours a day, beginning at the civilized hour of 9:00 a.m.—not that this is possible very often. But it’s been more possible than it is for many people, since I’ve been able to work part-time, and have had flexibility as an adjunct lecturer and freelance editor. My partner’s teaching job at the University of Michigan has meant excellent benefits for our family, which certainly helps sustain us financially and gives us additional flexibility in other ways too. We began part-time and then full-time childcare for the kids when they were each about ten months old. Even though it’s been a bit hard psychologically to justify paying for writing time, I can’t think of anything I’d rather have spent money on these past years than childcare, honestly. (Also, I’ll say that you’ve reached me at an optimistic time, as my younger daughter is about to join her older sister at a public elementary school in the fall. Yay!)
My kids have had wonderful caretakers, teachers, and babysitters; they’ve had a very involved dad. And though my time is of course much more limited than it was pre-motherhood, the reality is that I was always a plodding writer; I never kept to a regular schedule; and I could hardly ever just write for long, uninterrupted stretches. So, to put a sort of positive spin on it, having kids has meant that I can better justify my lack of productivity.
MUTHA: What are you working on now?
POLLY ROSENWAIKE: I’ve got some possible essays in the works, and a lot of research to do for a possible novel. I’m working on trying to believe that, hard as the first book was to write, I can maybe do it again.