If addiction memoir is a brooding genre, Laura Jean Baker’s debut may be the mother of them all.
“I wasn’t just imagining it or willing it into existence,” Baker writes in The Motherhood Affidavits: A Memoir of Childbearing, Addiction, and Questionable Innocence. “Babies had rewired the pleasure center of my brain. Like my aunt who was addicted to eating and QVC, one brother to drugs, another two to booze, all I could fixate upon was landing more pleasure.”
The oxytocin produced by pregnancy, childbearing, and breastfeeding alleviated symptoms of Baker’s bipolar depression in a way no therapy or medication ever had. After the birth of her first child in 2004, she couldn’t wait to be pregnant again. And again.
“Initially it was a metaphor, I’m addicted to childbearing,” says Baker, who spoke with Kirkus by phone from Oshkosh, Wisconsin, where she and husband Ryan Ulrich, live with their five children, “but then I started to do some research and [learned more] about the neurotransmitter oxytocin—how it’s very closely linked to addiction, depression, and mental health. It was over the process of all these realizations that it came together into something that was a larger narrative arc.
“I felt comfortable using the word ‘addiction,’ ” she says, to describe her relationship to childbearing, “because the definition of it literally suggests that you are doing something that pushes you beyond the threshold of health.”
Baker teaches creative writing and women’s and gender studies at the University of Wisconsin—Oshkosh. To help support their burgeoning family, Ulrich quit his job at a law firm in Milwaukee and opened a private criminal defense practice close to home. In a town hit hard by the opioid epidemic, his first clients included a fair share of drug addicts, like repeat offender Rob McNally.
“Everyone, not the least of whom was Ryan, troubled over the rapid-fire pacing of our children,” Baker writes. “By 2009, a year after Fern’s birth, I’d begun to actively campaign for baby number four, hopeful I could deliver him on or around Fern’s second birthday. A [drug task force] officer might argue, if babies were converted into bindles of dope, I’d delivered 12 kilos or 45,000 dosage units in little more than half a decade, serious drug trafficking, more heroin than Rob McNally could jack up in a lifetime without dying. I’d either need to cluck my habit or get more cunning about my grind.”
One of The Motherhood Affidavits’ most arresting aspects is Baker’s ability to draw provocative comparisons between the lives of her husbands’ clients and her own. As a woman, wife, and working mother of five young children, she often finds herself subjected to the court of public opinion.
“Judgment was something I thought about a lot in writing this book,” she says. “We are constantly judging other people, because it makes us feel better about ourselves and more secure. My father [a therapist], always said that projecting your own insecurities or fears onto somebody else was the worst and most epidemic sickness, because everybody does it, and it alienates us from each other.
“I tried to weave into the book the idea that I didn’t want to judge Ryan’s clients,” she says. “But, at the same time, I don’t want my children going over to their houses.”
The juxtaposition of domestic and disturbing content, lyrically conveyed, makes The Motherhood Affidavits an exciting, atypical reading experience. “Better Call Saul meets La Leche League in this creative memoir,” Kirkus writes.
“I wrote about empathizing with other people and trying to understand their stories,” Baker says, “and my hope is that readers, in turn, will empathize with me.”
Megan Labrise is a staff writer and co-host of the Fully Booked podcast.