by Cheryl E. Klein
Brown Paper Press (2022); 344 pp.; $16.73 (Paperback)Buy Book
Cheryl E. Klein is a writer whose voice leaps from the page—any page. On her website. In blog posts. In short stories. On social media. In emails. Klein’s approach, always open, honest, and funny— sometimes irreverent—showcases an authenticity that makes readers comfortable. That feeling of comfort is what allows a book like Crybaby: Infertility, Illness, and Other Things That Were Not the End of the World, Klein’s memoir and body narrative, to juxtapose levity with heavy themes and ultimately find a balance between them. Nefertiti Austin, author of Motherhood So White: A Memoir of Race, Gender, and Parenting in America, wrote of the book, “Crybaby is a visceral roller coaster of love, unexpected health challenges (that would have broken most women), and a rocky road to motherhood. Klein’s resilience and words captivated me.”
In addition to Crybaby, which released in September, Klein is the author of the novel, Lilac Mines, and a short story collection, The Commuters. She also writes a parenting and adoption column, “Hold it Lightly,” for MUTHA, where she serves as senior editor. Her essays and stories have been featured in publications such as Blunderbuss, Entropy, Literary Mama, The Normal School, and Razorcake. Both the MacDowell Colony and the Center for Cultural Innovation have bestowed honors on her work.
Klein lives in California with her family, and as she says, her “hobbies include going to therapy and tidying the living room.” Former Senior Editor Christina Consolino corresponded via email with Klein about the difficulty of writing memoir, what role humor plays in her writing (and her life), what obstacles exist for the LGBTQ community in the world of infertility, and what she hopes readers learn in terms of desiring and achieving motherhood.
Christina Consolino: Michelle Tea, author of Knocking Myself Up: A Memoir of My In/Fertility, thanked you “for being real about all the messy emotions tied to the strange and powerful desire for a child.” Did any obstacles occur when you first began putting your story on the page? Was it more or less difficult than you anticipated to bare yourself in your writing?
Cheryl Klein: Like a lot of writers, I process my thoughts and feelings on the page, so it would have been more difficult NOT to write my way through this experience, in some ways. Crybaby is, among other things, a story about learning to be okay with my own emotions. I grew up in a home where we were encouraged to talk about things, but there was this undercurrent of “You have to be upbeat and hyperfunctional, and you can only get upset for logical reasons.” Therapy and literature taught me that the logic of the human psyche is weird and petty and beautiful. This book was my attempt to own all those things. What was harder was going back and editing it—reliving some of that stuff was heavy.
CC: Among your many publications are a short story collection and a novel. Did you ever consider fictionalizing Crybaby? What drew you to memoir instead? Did you succeed in what you set out to do by choosing memoir?
CK: I never really considered fictionalizing Crybaby. Maybe because some of the sections started as blog posts and essays—I felt like the cat was already out of the bag. The famous prologue to Dave Eggers’s A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius accurately skewers the somewhat arbitrary distinctions between memoir and fiction (although I do think there are some important ones). Choosing memoir was basically an outgrowth of what I started, and memoir felt like the most honest form for this project. As a literary fiction writer, I also had this notion that memoirs were highly marketable! Turns out that’s not especially true, lol.
CC: So many sentences stood out to me in this book, whether you were describing pregnancy, anxiety, infertility, or cancer: “It was like trying to see a shadowy figure who was always disappearing around corners”; “I’d tried to pin my worry to a board like a moth. If I examined it in detail, I believed I could conquer it. Meanwhile a flock of more venomous insects had descended”; “But there are layers of knowing, and each one adds to the total weight. They can crush you. Another layer of knowing engulfed me: Life had nothing to do with fairness.” The weight of those descriptions was balanced by the humor. Does humor hide the pain or help you handle the pain or both? How did humor help you through this period in your life?
CK: One time, C.C., my partner, said about me, “Cheryl is always completely joking and completely serious.” I tend to be a sincere and even dramatic person, but I can’t help but stand outside myself and see how ridiculous I am sometimes. For me, humor equals perspective. I can’t say that I use humor to mask pain—I’m sure some people wish I would hide my pain a little more, but it’s always pretty up front. But I do use it as a way to remind myself that I’m not the only person who’s ever had a shitty day or year.
I also find a lot of humor in the weird juxtapositions that accompany real-life scenarios. In dramas, big emotional moments tend to happen at airports or outside someone’s window in the middle of the night. In real life and comedies, they happen in Starbucks or the bathroom or as you’re limping through a presentation in a work meeting. So I tried to include some of that.
CC: Fertility is something many take for granted until they experience infertility, but infertility can look different for different people. You write, “In the world of a fertile straight woman, ‘really trying’ meant figuring out roughly what time of month she’d be ovulating, and having a bunch of sex that week.” In your world, it wasn’t that easy. Physiology aside, what obstacles does the LGBTQ community face, and what can be done to deconstruct some of those obstacles?
CK: In addition to physiology, money is a big obstacle to both fertility treatment and adoption. I was extremely fortunate to have very comprehensive health insurance, first, and then family help with adoption fees. (Every difficult step of our parenting journey has been accompanied by the ironic knowledge that we wouldn’t even be pursuing IVF or private adoption if we weren’t quite that privileged. It took resources to feel that shitty!)
Both processes involve considerable paperwork and gatekeeping. When I’m President of the World, my universal health-care plan will include substantial coverage for fertility treatment, and the government will fully fund adoptions. Currently, adoptive parents have to provide all funds for attorneys and agencies up front, only to get a laughably small tax credit after an adoption is final. I could go on about adoption reforms that I think are necessary, including reforms that better support expectant mothers. Many (though not all) mothers who consider placing their children for adoption would be willing and able to parent if they had a real social safety net. Without one, they’re stuck between a rock and a hard place, and hopeful adoptive parents get drawn into the process and often end up heartbroken.
Finally, every institution needs to update their forms to say “parent one” and “parent two” instead of “mother” and “father.” It’s a small thing, but having filled out approximately 7,484 PDFs, I can say that it’s a microaggression that wears a queer person down.
CC: Sometime after you experienced pregnancy loss, C.C. wanted you to go to a miscarriage support group, and you said, “It’s just that it will be full of straight women, and half of them will be pregnant again within months. That’s not my experience.” That seems to be one of the best reasons for writing the book. What message do you hope to impart to your readers, even if your experience isn’t fully their experience?
CK: I think you nailed it; my experience was really lonely, even if some of that loneliness can be blamed on my own myopia. At the time, I felt like “everyone else” got married at 30, had their first baby at 32, and their second at 34. That wasn’t true, even in my circle of friends, let alone in the larger world. But that’s the power of hegemony and envy and depression and social media. I was and am happiest when I remember the world is made up of so many different stories, and no life plan is the “right” one. I wanted to add one more story to the mix. As a reader, I often relate to books about people who are nothing like me on paper but who share my emotional experiences. So, for example, maybe there’s a male reader out there who’s never mourned the loss of his ovaries but who totally gets what it’s like to struggle with perfectionism.
CC: The publisher’s description of the book says, “Crybaby is the story of what happens when a failed perfectionist and successful hypochondriac is forced to make room in her life for grief and joy, fear and hope, all at the same time.” Those opposite emotions are clear on every page, and the reader can appreciate the rollercoaster nature of your experiences. What would you say to someone going through emotional highs and lows like you did? How hard was it to have faith that everything would work out?
CK: I still don’t have faith that everything will work out. I’m fear-based to a fault, unfortunately. My partner and I are in the process of adopting another child after four big fails on that front, and I am in the midst of some serious post-traumatic stress. The same is true with medical stuff. But I have realized that I’m more resilient and adaptable than I used to think. “You can do hard things” is basically a bumper sticker now, but I guess I would amend it to say, “You can do hard things, and you can also take meds, rest, and ask for help. Things don’t always work out, but they don’t always not work out either, and there’s usually another chapter after the bad one.”
CC: In Chapter 13, “Closer,” we see a lot of your angst. You hated being at home; you hated being at work. When you spoke to a friend, you were “looking for a punching bag.” Your anxiety regarding the struggles you and your partner were having at the time stood front and center on the page, and it made me think about growing pains and how emotional, personal growth takes so much energy. What lessons were you able to take from that period and apply to motherhood, which is also a period of growth that can drain us of energy?
CK: It might be a good time to mention that my behavior is not always great in this book, and my thoughts are sometimes worse. But one of my takeaways from this time and years of therapy is that emotions aren’t wrong. I believe my one triumph as a parent is that I’ve never told my son he shouldn’t feel a certain way. Yesterday, he was mad at my partner for “not listening” to him. She was in a Zoom call and politely told him she’d talk to him later. We explained, “Mama needs to be in her meeting,” but we also validated his feelings: “It feels so bad when someone’s not able to listen to you when you need them.”
CC: One of the beautiful aspects of motherhood, I believe, is that while every journey is different, so much of the experience is relatable, which helps us all learn from one another. What lesson do you hope to leave your readers with in terms of desiring and achieving motherhood?
CK: I hope that people who are struggling to become mothers will come away with more compassion for themselves—and that includes people who, for whatever reasons, never end up becoming mothers. There’s a parallel universe in which we weren’t able to adopt, and I like to think that version of me is still fulfilled. Right now, I’m thinking of Detransition, Baby, the novel by Torrey Peters, about a trans woman who wants to be a mother, both to a baby and to the younger trans women in her community. That book is an amazing examination of maternal desire and how it manifests when certain biological options aren’t on the table. Desire and its fulfillment can take a lot of paths.
CC: Let’s talk about the subtitle for the book: Infertility, Illness, and Other Things That Were Not the End of the World. Those “other things”—pregnancy loss, adoption—came “before motherhood.” What experiences “after motherhood” would you also consider to be “not the end of the world”?
CK: Going through what we went through to become parents has helped me be more relaxed about some aspects of parenting. Even though I have my trigger points, for sure, I haven’t worried as much as I might have—had all my initial plans worked out—when, for example, my son had a biting phase in preschool or took his time learning to read.
CC: What’s next for you?
CK: I’m working on a murder mystery set in the nonprofit social services world, and it’s been fun to flex my fiction muscle while channeling some of the knowledge and angst from the nonprofit day jobs I’ve had for 15 years. And as mentioned, we also are in the process of adopting our youngest son, so that comes with a lot of emotional processing, sleep deprivation, and laundry.