A new mother dives headlong into a parallel world to find her missing son in The Possibilities (Random House, $27), a quasi-sci-fi novel that sets out to examine and explore the deepest of all human bonds. Author Yael Goldstein Love talks to Fiction editor Yona Zeldis McDonough about the metamorphosis that is motherhood.
YZM: This novel presents a vision of motherhood that is very fraught; can you speak to that?
YGL: I think motherhood is very fraught! I think is has to be. It’s baked into the role. We do an immense disservice to mothers, kids, really all humans when we pretend otherwise. Many of the aspects that make it so fraught are also what make it so wonderful.
The biggest surprise to me about becoming a mother was actually how interesting and complex it is, intellectually and emotionally — it brings you down to the bone of yourself in so many ways. And, when you think about, it how can it not? You’re not really sleeping, you’re temporarily completely fixated on caring for and protecting this tiny little creature who seems so easily breakable that it feels downright nuts that they let you take it home from the hospital. But here it is, here you are — you, the same idiot who for most of her adult life regularly forgot to eat lunch until faint with hunger, now in charge of keeping alive a person whose neck will snap if you don’t cradle it just so.
There’s also the intense emotional, sensory, bodily intimacy of caring for a child, especially in those early months. That makes it fraught as well. We all become who we are in relationship to a primary caregiver (often, but by no means exclusively, a mother), and it awakens all sorts of things in us to reenter that two-person drama, with all the same smells and sounds and feels, but now cast in the other role. Caring for a child brings us into contact with such old, primitive memories and also feelings — dependency and fear; blissful feelings of merger; rage and envy; a sort of formless, floating contentment, and so much else. It brings up feelings and thoughts that are usually invisible to us if we’re just going along in normal adult life, doing normal adult things. For instance, I had no idea how averse I was to my own dependency needs until I had an utterly dependent child. I had to reconcile myself to the realization that I too had started this way, that we all did, and that dependency is part of the deal of being human and is actually good and healthy. That’s just one of many examples I could give, but you get the idea.
Parenting a child is just a wild, deep experience, and like any wild, deep experience it is going to be fraught. I really wish we had as many novels and movies about the intricacies of that relationship in all its fraughtness as we do about, say, romantic love. It’s just as full of conflict and beauty, and just as variable too — no two people’s experiences of it are exactly alike.
YZM: You work as a psychotherapist as well as a novelist; how do these two disciplines intertwine?
YGL: It’s going to sound strange, but to me they are really the same discipline carried out in two very different ways. In both you’re just trying to figure out what it is like to be a person, this particular person. And you’re asking why am I meeting this person just now, what is it that they want or need, and what has to change in order for them to get it?
Obviously when you’re writing a novel you’re asking these questions about a person or people who do not exist, people you’re making up. It’s a very solitary activity. Whereas in psychotherapy you’re thinking about an actual human being who is sitting across from you, and you’re trying to figure out the answers to these questions with them. Psychotherapy is first and foremost a relationship, a deeply collaborative relationship. And while writing novels does feel urgent to me, there is a different kind of urgency you feel when you are sitting with someone who is suffering and coming to you for help. So in those ways the two jobs could not be more different, and certainly my days spent practicing therapy and my days spent writing have a very different feel to them and exhaust and energize me in almost opposite ways. But fundamentally both are attempts to get at new information about what it’s like to be a human being, which is the topic that most interests me and always has. I feel very lucky that I get to build two careers out of that one interest.
Another similarity is that, in neither discipline can you rest on assumption and precedent. With each new novel you need to figure out from scratch how to write this novel, almost inventing the art form anew each time to suit the story you want to tell. And with every client, too, it feels like you are developing a brand new field of study together, the field of this person, since this person is not like any other person and therefore you cannot be the same therapist with them that you have been with anyone else. You can never relax into thinking you have it all figured out because you just absolutely do not, and you never will.
YZM: We don’t hear all that much about the transition to motherhood—what made you choose that area to focus on and what are some of the more surprising things you have learned?
YGL: I think what really shocked me about that transition was going from experiencing myself in such simple terms — just one single person with a body and a mind all her own—to feeling as though that level of simplicity was quaint and lost to me forever. I was no longer just a person. I was somehow a system, me and this baby, more like a redwood grove or a fungus than the human I’d been before. I’d expected to be a system when I was pregnant—I knew I was going to be sharing my body with another body, which is weird enough—but I did not expect that feeling to persist once my child was out in the world. I had no idea I was going to start lending my mind to his psychological development just as fully as I’d lent my body to his physical development. And I certainly had no idea that doing this was going to be both the most emotionally intense and most intellectually interesting experience of my life.
I am thinking right now about the day I brought my son home from the hospital. I walked into my bedroom and burst into tears because I was overwhelmed with grief at the loss of the person I used to be the last time I was in that room. I felt like she was dead, and I wasn’t entirely wrong. The psychoanalyst Galit Atlas describes the transition to motherhood as an existential crisis that demands either breakdown or breakthrough. I think that’s it exactly. You’re never going to be your old self again, it’s never going to feel the same to be you as it once did. That’s painful and you need to grieve for what you lost, but it can also be an opportunity for such thrilling change and growth. That’s what makes this transition so fascinating and rich. It’s also what makes it such a perfect time for psychotherapy. Getting back in therapy when my son was still very little was one of the wisest life decisions I’ve ever made.
YZM: Losing a child is a persistent fear for so many women—what made you decide to tackle it?
YGL: My son almost died during labor. Actually the scene that begins the book is the birth of my son pretty exactly. I had an emergency c-section and then they couldn’t get him breathing through many rounds of CPR until finally they found a plug of mucus obstructing his airway and suctioned it out, then whisked him off to the NICU to see what damage those ten minutes without oxygen had done to his brain. For an hour after giving birth, I lay in the recovery room with absolutely no idea whether my child had lived or died, and whether I was going to have the chance to touch or see this human who had lived inside me for nine months.
In the end he was fine, and I took him home, but my entry to motherhood had put me in a weird frame of mind. I felt as though I was existing in multiple realities simultaneously. I was at home with a healthy newborn, but it felt as though the reality in which he’d died had come so close to happening that it was also real, like a shadow world lurking beside my own. And it wasn’t just that world either — there was also a world in which he’d rolled off the changing table instead of my catching him at the last second, one in which his head slipped beneath the water during his bath while I was reaching for his shampoo, and on and on, just all those little near-misses of infancy.
My mind was constantly split between these possibilities, and the experience was so unsettling and interesting that I felt I had to write about it just to make sense of it to myself. So I wrote a book in which the metaphor was concrete and true: suppose at the moment a baby is born, the laws of physics briefly change so that parallel worlds not only exist simultaneously but also affect each other. With that premise in place, I could do justice to my experience of early motherhood.
The other aspect of this fear I really wanted to capture was the largeness of it. Before I had a child of my own, I really bought into the ludicrous idea that domesticity and caregiving are small, quiet dramas compared to more masculine dramas like fighting wars or trying to find golden fleeces. When actually, what is a larger or higher stake adventure than being a new parent? What a ridiculous bait-and-switch that we act as though keeping a human alive and helping them form their whole sense of the world and themselves is quiet and small, whereas a man trying to, I don’t know, become the head of some crime syndicate is big and important. Especially in my clinical work, where I often see parents across the lifespan and in so many different circumstances, I think a lot about how remarkably hard — almost cruel — it is that evolution endows caregivers with this primal drive to keep our offspring safe, while also giving us the brains to know that there’s no way we really can, certainly not forever. For all our love and vigilance, we’re not omnipotent, and sometimes things just happen. Accidents, illnesses. The mismatch between what we long to do as parents and what we know we realistically can do as human beings is such a deep and interesting part of the human experience. I’d never seen it written about in a way I thought did justice to the existential stakes of it, the rip-through-the-fabric-of-reality largeness of it. I tried to do that with this book.
YZM: Hannah has this thought, An idealized mother, constant and unreal, which seemed to me to describe so much of mothering, or at least the idea of mothering—can you say more about that?
YGL: I think we all have this fantasy of an idealized mother, a bottomless source of pure nurturing, a kind of blissful merger. This idealized mother is not only selfless, she can’t help but be selfless because somehow her needs and desires are only ever to do exactly what is best for her children. She never has longings that go beyond her kids or are in conflict with their interests. This fantasy is of course bonkers because a mother is a human and humans are not like this — and thank goodness because, in fact, this idealized selfless mother would be a disaster and would raise sad, stunted children who are incapable of real, mutual relationships.
Given how patently bonkers the fantasy is, I think it’s worth wondering why we all have it swimming around somewhere in our minds, even if we are consciously at pains to reject it. I think there are a lot of reasons for the persistence of this fantasy, which is so widespread that it’s more like a cultural myth. One is that I think we all like this myth to some extent, because we were all children once and we wanted a grown-up to love us infinitely, uncomplicatedly, to shower us with unceasing attention and gratification and to be happy and contented doing it. It’s such a comforting fairytale to think that any relationship can be like this — with no friction between what I want and what you want, none of what makes actual human relationships so hard.
We also live also in a culture that encourages and supports this child-like fantasy. It’s a cultural myth that’s very useful to anyone with a misogynistic agenda since it’s really a way of denying that mothers are full human beings, and by extension that any women are since I think the same people who tend to go all-in on endorsing this myth of ideal motherhood tend to be the same people who think motherhood itself is some kind of mystical apotheosis of womanhood. The myth also functions as an excuse for our society not to provide any real social safety net. Actual mothers need better childcare, affordable medical care, maternity leave, and flexible working hours. But the ideal fantasy mother needs none of this because she is omnipresent and omnicompetent. She is the social safety net. So it’s really a wonderfully convenient myth for anyone who has a stake in not providing the social goods that children and families actually need in order to thrive.
YZM: Hannah’s husband Adam refers to her fear for their child as her, “Jewish mother overdrive” — can you speak about that?
YGL: I mean, the anxious Jewish mother is sort of the universal symbol for maternal worry. She’s a punchline. I am always very aware of myself as a Jewish mother whenever I am at my most anxious. I don’t want to be a punchline. I don’t want to be ridiculous. No one does. I think it’s so easy for all mothers to get caught in this awful game of are these my instincts or is this just anxiety? As in, do I trust this gut feeling or don’t I? Actually, when I did my dissertation research on maternal worry this kind of worrying about their worrying turned out to be one of the most common themes among my participants: Am I being irrational? Am I being a basket case? If I ignore this gut feeling in order to seem like a calm, rational sort of person, will I regret it? I think if you happen to be Jewish, this bind gets amplified by your awareness of the stereotype. It makes us doubt ourselves even more, and it makes us self-conscious in front of other people too; stereotype threat comes into play.
But, you know, my grandmother was the most anxious Jewish mother imaginable, the kind who sees a glass front door and immediately thinks if they don’t put up a curtain, these people will be murdered within the year. There is no denying that she was not the most rational guide to actual danger. Probably she could have trusted her instincts a lot less, and no doubt her out-of-whack read on danger had a lot to do with trauma, both personal and intergenerational. (And probably—certainly—the same could be said for me.) So I don’t mean to say there’s nothing to the trope of the worried Jewish mother. But I do wish we’d been more curious about why she lived with such outrageous and vivid fears. I’m thinking now of Adam begging Hannah to believe they’ll find their missing son if they just trust the authorities and follow their directives, and Hannah replying, “The world doesn’t work that way for me.” I think that was very true of my grandmother’s experience; the world hadn’t worked that way for her, and certainly not for her many family members killed in the Holocaust. So, yes, her ability to turn almost anything into a prophecy of doom could be quite funny, but she was legitimately scared, she was suffering, and it’s strange to me in retrospect that we made a joke out of her catastrophizing instead of trying to see her experience more clearly. Maybe if we had, we could have calmed some of her worry. She’d still have hated my book though.