I'm sitting in Haifa's apartment when the talk turns to male-female roles. “It's hard for women,” she sighs. “Those mens (sic) get everything they want. We have to give up so much, to take care of houses and children. My art, my ideas...” she sighs again and lets the sentence trail off.
Read the last 5 Minutes for Books on Bonding Over Beauty.
Haifa is an Iraqi refugee in her mid-60s. Her husband is a renowned artist, famous in his own country and region. Haifa feels that she has lost much of herself and promotes only her husband. At the same time, her love for him is evident and ferocious. Although my society offers me much more in the way of artistic outlets, I can still relate to what Haifa says. I remember clearly the mix of horror and fascination with which I regarded young mothers before I joined their ranks. I knew I wanted kids, but I was desperately afraid of having them. I think I worried about losing some essential part of who I was, swamped under a milky deluge of used diapers, Tickle Me Elmos and neighborhood competitions for first tooth or best artwork.
Turkish writer Elif Shafak faced the same fears in the years before her daughter was born, and she articulates them in her new memoir Black Milk. Although the title refers to the severe postpartum depression she experienced, the majority of the book deals with her running from the idea of motherhood, seeking answers in a variety of places.
Shafak imagines her soul stocked with finger-sized manifestations of different aspects of her personality, a Choir of Discordant Voices that she also refers to as the harem within. There's her practical side, her spiritual side, her workaholic side, her cynical and over-analytical side, and finally, introduced later in the book, her maternal side and her physical, sexual side. She constantly has conversations with them, and they stage coups and overthrow each other, fighting for control. It's a chaotic and wonderful picture of Shafak's journey from a free-spirited, independent nomad to a contented wife and mother, a place she never imagined she'd end up.
Recognizing that she's not alone on this journey, Shafak looks at women writers through the centuries, including Zelda Fitzgerald, Toni Morrison, Ursula LeGuin and Ayn Rand, to name a few, who combined motherhood with writing. She soon realizes that there is no one-size-fits-all.
Shafak never even planned on marrying. As a child, her only constant was her family's continual moves, and as an adult she continued to cross countries and continents with regularity. Writing fiction grounded her. Even after her marriage, she spent part of the year in Arizona and part in Istanbul with her husband. Then she got pregnant.
After the birth of her daughter, she plunged into a severe postpartum depression, petrified to realize that for the first time in her life she could not write. Her grandmother told her that crying too much would sour her milk. She brooded on this and ended up playing with ideas of milk and ink, viewing both as nurturing. As she finally emerges from her terrible depression, she embraces all six of her finger-sized women, all warring aspects of her personality, realizing that she is only whole when all are equally valued. And so she is ready to write, mother and even give birth to a second child a couple of years later.
When Haifa sees my copy of Black Milk, she pounces on it with great interest. I sum up the book for her, and she nods. She agrees. In describing her own particular journey, Elif Shafak has described us all.
Elizabeth D. Jones has loved reading for just about as long as she's had a cognitive memory, and she loves working with the 5 Minutes for Books team. She is an ESL teacher who has lived and worked around the world with her husband and three kids. She blogs about adjusting back to life in the U.S. at Planet Nomad.