Admirers of Anne Enright, who earned international attention when she won the Man Booker Prize in 2007 for The Gathering, will enjoy her nonfiction insights on parenting in Making Babies. Here, the author offers her thoughts on her sometimes rueful and raw report on everything, including pregnancy, childbirth and breast milk.
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Your first chapter begins with this: “Speech is a selfish act, and mothers should probably remain silent,” recounting how one of these essays appeared in the Guardian, provoking a “ferocious” response. Did knowing you might hit nerves affect your writing project?
I didn't want to hit nerves so much as hit the mark, I think. Motherhood is, in many societies, a sacred and therefore silent state. So, yes, I wanted to break that silence, and knew people might find that a slightly profane thing to do. I have never come across a more emotive subject. But, you know, when I apologized for speaking about all this, I was being slightly ironic.
You end the chapter by explaining, “I wanted to say what it was like.” Do you remember when, exactly, this desire to describe your experience of motherhood struck you? Did you always plan to share your story with a wide audience?
I had written a few pieces after my first child was born that were published here and there when a friend and editor asked me to write an account of the actual birth. As a writer, I found this an interesting challenge, but the reason I sat down to the task was because I realized I would forget all those amazing details if I did not get them on paper. In a way, I wrote it for myself.
The essay was published in a literary journal with a small readership, and I thought no more about it, until a woman came up to me at some gathering in Dublin to say she had read the piece and loved it. Tears came to her eyes, as she spoke—not just the embarrassed, wet gleam you might get talking to a stranger, these were fat, rolling-down-your-face tears, and I thought, I have never made a reader cry like that, I am really on to something here. After that, I started writing more with a view to putting together an entire book.
Do you ever regret pulling the veil back from your intimate personal life, or wish you hadn’t made these musings so public? If so, does the appreciation of those who feel you have voiced their own unarticulated experiences make up for that?
I was not well known, when I wrote this book. I would find it difficult to write about my body and its workings now, I think. But the book is not just about the body, or my body, the book is, above all, not just about me. And, you know, I was so wrapped up in it all, I was at home with my babies, it was as though the wide world did not exist.
I did worry about some of the negative thoughts I recorded, though I thought it was my job to tell the truth. Why else write at all? Some years after it came out, I met a woman whose baby had died at six weeks. The woman said, very simply, that she had suffered some of those same flashes of negativity, and that she had felt so guilty about them after the baby died, she thought she had not loved him enough. She said that when she read my account, she realized she was not strange for having these thoughts, or wrong, or alone. She was so generous to tell me this, and it has stayed with me ever since, not just as a vindication of my book about babies, it was a vindication of my life's work as a writer.
In the chapter “Milk” you explain why mothers cannot write: “because motherhood happens in the body, as much as the mind,” not a place you can send dispatches home from but “home itself.” And then you write anyway. Can you explain how you managed to pull this off when this task has daunted so many other creative mothers?
How did I pull it off? Pure, raw desperation. I didn't write through my first pregnancy—it is so hard to make fiction when you are waiting for something real and wondering about it all the time. By the time my daughter was born I thought I would never write again, never make another mortgage payment, we would be on the street with a new baby, and my vain little idea of myself as an “artist” would be in tatters. I didn't have a single idea in my head—it was full of the baby! The baby! So on the basis that every problem is its own solution, I sat down and started to type about...the baby.
The book is arranged in roughly chronological order, beginning with longer narratives that get in the face of parenting challenges shorter, more fractured. Was that deliberate?
I didn't write [the book] like a novelist, who is interested in shape and effect, I wrote it like a human being under pressure. I brought my experience of writing fiction to the book, and all my usual pleasure of making sentences, but I think there is more focus in these pages than anywhere else in my work, more urgency, clarity and felt life.
Jessie Grearson is a freelance writer and teacher living in Falmouth, Maine. When she isn’t reading, writing or teaching, she enjoys dreaming up new recipes, some of which she enters into cooking competitions, and all of which she tries out on her husband and two daughters.