In Making Babies: Stumbling Into Motherhood, acclaimed author Anne Enright chronicles her experience navigating the bizarre, unsettling and at times highly comical landscape of new motherhood. First published in Britain in 2004, her memoir was released in hardback in the United States last year and came out in paperback in April.
Enright has written several novels, including The Gathering, which won the Man Booker Prize in 2007, and The Forgotten Waltz, which won the Andrew Carnegie Medal for Excellence in Fiction and was also shortlisted for the Orange Prize in Fiction in 2012. She has also published two short-story collections; her first collection, The Portable Virgin, won the Rooney Prize for Irish Literature in 1991. She is a graduate of Trinity College, Dublin, and the University of East Anglia, where she received a master’s degree in creative writing. Enright lives in Dublin, Ireland, with her husband, 13-year-old daughter and 10-year-old son.
In a conversation with Lisa Lynne Lewis, Enright talks about the role of mothers in fiction, what led her to write Making Babies and why she calls her memoir “a great contraceptive.”
Lisa Lynne Lewis: Your memoir, Making Babies: Stumbling Into Motherhood, was originally published in the U.K. in 2004, but wasn’t released in the U.S. until last year. Was there a reason for the time lag?
Anne Enright: I was amused by the fact that it wasn’t published in the U.S. when it first came out. I thought it was because of the tone, that it was too spiky and not “apple pie” or political enough. Perhaps the Tiger Mother book (Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother) changed the atmosphere a bit!
At readings in the U.S., I’d meet people who had gotten copies from friends in the U.K. It was passed around almost by word of mouth.
LLL: You wrote Making Babies in bits and pieces after your daughter’s birth in 2000 and your son’s birth in 2003. At what point did you decide to compile what you’d written into a larger work?
AE: I had written an essay on breastfeeding [that ran in the London Review of Books]. Afterwards, a woman came up to me and told me she’d read the piece, and she was crying. I thought, “I’ve never made anyone cry.” I knew then that I had to keep on, that I was onto something, in terms of social and creative synchronicity.
What a writer is looking for is to say something that has been obvious for a while but has not been said yet, to make things apparent at the right moment. I also thought that I was culturally placed to discuss the whole process of motherhood in a non-political way and in a very personal way.
LLL: What was your intent in writing Making Babies?
AE: During the birth of my second child I had a very strong sense of, “This is what it’s like to die.” Generally people aren’t talking about the extremes of the experience. There’s a lot of adrenaline around a birth. I wanted to be utterly personal – to take the personal to the limits of its expression so that I could say what it was like.
In Ireland, there was a clear loss of status that mothers felt. There was also a sense that you pretty much pop them out and get on with it, you know – we’re still enthusiastic breeders in Ireland. I took pride in writing something that wasn’t important because it was ‘only’ about babies. There are all these things at play when you’re talking about what is an incredibly visceral biological and pretty wonderful experience.
The Irish discourse is still mired in abortion and even contraception. I wanted to get under that discourse a little. What they don’t consider important is in fact the most important thing.
LLL: Your memoir is very funny and full of philosophical musings, but also very personal. Were you concerned about putting an entire book about your experiences of giving birth and becoming a mother out in the world?
AE: The book is a real response to a time in my life, without calculation and premeditation. It has a kind of simplicity for me: I did it because it was there to be done. It was written in a full heart.
I will say, though, I became better known when The Gathering won the Booker Prize. I wonder if I’d known that I’d be giving 58 interviews in a single day that I would have been so frank! I was sharing a great secret, but you don’t realize when you’re sharing it that the whole world is reading it.
At the time when you’re writing, the relationship is very close between you and the page. You’re not writing for a crowd; you’re writing for one single reader at a time.
LLL: There is a very detailed and funny section in your memoir in which you compare giving birth to being run over by a small car from the inside. Did you imagine that this might scare some people off from the experience?
AE: Toughen up! I do say to people when they’re buying the book for a friend or daughter who’s pregnant and I’m signing it, “Don’t give it to them before they’ve had the child!” I also tell them it’s a great contraceptive.
LLL: In the introduction for Making Babies, you apologize to your children for “writing about their baby selves; either too much, or not enough, or whatever changing way this book takes them, over the years.” How have your kids responded to it?
AE: My son is slightly aggrieved that he isn’t written about as much because he came later . . . but he hasn’t really given me a hard time about that.
My daughter moved into a big school this year, and she did come home and reach for the book. She was surrounded by people who didn’t know who she was, and reading it made her feel special again. I have yet to go through the teenage years when she’ll be flinging it back at me.
LLL: In one interview, you said that you had no room for the anxieties of the writing life after you had children. How did your approach change?
AE: I have more fruitful anxiety and less grandiose anxiety. What stopped me before I had children was how the work would be received. After they were born, I didn’t care! It gave me a funny kind of confidence.
LLL: Your first book was published nine years before your daughter was born, and you’ve continued to publish regularly since then. How did your experience becoming a mother factor into your writing?
AE: In my fiction I can put in children who are actual human beings. I build their characters the way I would build adult characters. Before, I don’t think I noticed them or used them at all, really.
LLL: What are you working on now?
AE: There’s going to be a ‘big mother’ in my next novel – one who says what she thinks.
I think it’s very odd and difficult that in fiction, motherhood generally ends the narrative. You don’t have a heroine who has children and then goes on to do something. In terms of contemporary novels, it’s hard to think of a great fictional heroine who’s also a mother.
LLL: Do you see yourself returning to memoir-writing at any point, particularly as your kids become teenagers?
AE: At this point, I’m much more interested in the world than I was even 10 years ago and less interested in me. I’m interested in the world where they are going to grow up.
It’s really a surprise to me that I even wrote Making Babies. In my twenties, I never would have thought that I would end up writing about babies. You can’t predict your future self at all – you have to keep yourself open. Maybe something will come across that I have to say.